June 26, 2016
On June 26th Don and I headed around Sandy Hook and into the oily swells of the open Atlantic. They were just enough to make us both slightly queasy but they also allowed us to see how the construction of New Jersey’s artificial sand dunes was proceeding.
Some communities already had well built dunes covered with newly planted dune grass. A barge sitting almost half a mile offshore was pumping sand through pipes and spraying it onto the beach to be fashioned into an artificial sand dune near the Shark River Inlet.
Most of New Jersey’s iconic boardwalks had been repaired and throngs of people were enjoying the new sand. But will this almost hundred mile long, 22-foot high sand dune be enough to save New Jersey when it is finally completed in 2017?
We reached Manasquan, the northern entrance to the Intracoastal Waterway, near high tide. The inlet was a maze of small and large boats including one in tow behind a tugboat, just to keep us on our toes.
All the boats had to circle around each other in a tiny cramped harbor while we waited for the noon train bridge to rise. Afterwards a long procession of boats and jet skies traversed the channel until a few foolhardy souls like us turned south down the Point Pleasant Canal.
There was just enough room for two boats to pass amidships and each boat set up waves that amplified as they ricocheted off the steel bulkheads that lined the two-mile long canal. I’m sure the canal provides endless entertainment to the occupants of the many houses along its banks.
Our cruising guide breezily acknowledged the 3 knot currents, heavy boat traffic, 2 lift bridges, waves, wakes and 6 foot depths that could be lower when the wind blew from the wrong direction. It closed with a characteristic boating understatement, “such conditions will require a little extra caution by the captains.” It said nothing about the mate whose eyes never left the Fathometer. Our boat only drew 4 feet.
Prior to Hurricane Sandy we could have stayed offshore but the storm had created so many new offshore shoals that it was deemed safer to stake your life on being able to transit the shallow canal — before the tide turned and you ran out of water. Just to add a little spice to the adventure a dredge was stationed half way through the canal still cleaning up from the results of the storm that had shoaled up these waters four years before.
But eventually we emerged from the canal into Bay Head, which had just been a marshy cul de sac at the head of Barnegat Bay, before the canal was completed in 1929.
Our destination was the venerable Bay Head Yacht Club that dated back to 1888. The club owned land around most of the upper marsh area and kids were sailing a colorful fleet of Sandpipers, small shallow draft catboats made in Massachusetts. I felt like I was back in my hometown on Cape Cod.
The first thing the dockmaster told us is that Bay Head had been the epicenter of the hurricane. It seemed to be a common theme up and down the coast. He told us he and his girlfriend had spent the night on his catboat that had risen up and down on the storm surges that sloshed back and forth in the middle of the bay. But they had survived.
The rest of the residents of Bay Head had mostly evacuated and returned a few days later to a post apocalyptic world of martial law, check points and national guardsmen standing around oil barrels filled with smoky fires. Residents felt like wartime refugees.
For a month and a half you could only collect two suitcases worth of belongings a day out of your house.
One of the yacht club’s boat detailers was able to get into the cordoned off area by crawling under a rickety pile of boats jumbled on top of each other like matchsticks. When she arrived at what was left of the yacht club where she had worked since a kid, she cried for half an hour.
But four years later you had to look hard to see damage in the village itself. It still had the feel of a quaint Cape Cod village with quiet streets lined with cedar, scraggly pine and hydrangea bushes.
The town’s boardwalk had been destroyed by a storm in the Nineties and the town fathers had decided to just leave it that way, a quaint town dominated by the old money yacht club. Our detailer friend described it as a town of the newly wed and the nearly dead.
But when the state came through asking everyone to sign easements so the Army Corps of Engineers could build this section of the sand dune to the required 22 feet, several of Bay Head’s residents refused to sign, saying they didn’t want a two story high sand dune blocking their ocean view. Governor Christie responded in kind.
“Residents refused to sign the easement because they didn’t want a sand dune to block their view? Well now they don’t have to worry about it, they got no house. So you got no house, you don’t have to worry about no view.”
But the beach was a revelation. Each side street that opened onto the beach had a pleasant college student who explained that you needed a badge to get onto the beach. The badges were $8 for the day and $80 for the season. You could not bring food or drinks on the beach, which took care of the messy problem of overflowing trashcans.
The badge meister let me walk down the beach to see that each side street that abutted the beach was manned by a similar college student and had two lifeguards and an antique looking rescue boat iconic to the Jersey Shore. The Bay Head Improvement Association had operated the beach this way since the year after the yacht club had been founded in 1888.
Most of the town’s damaged houses had been raised on low pilings with FEMA money or at the homeowner’s own expense, but there were also several empty ocean lots that nobody seemed to be in a great rush to buy or sell. The empty lots had been planted with beach grass and had undoubtedly raised the land values of the neighboring beach houses that now enjoyed an ocean view.
But it was the yacht club itself that provided the most valuable post Sandy lesson. Prior to the storm the clubhouse had been a more modest building. But its planning committee had big plans and its capital committee had big bucks. When the storm destroyed the old building the club had the cash in hand to build the much larger building.
It was a pattern we would see repeated up and down the coast. People who had their own resources could act quickly to buy out the less fortunate and build bigger and more expensive homes. The towns would be back on their feet, but what would happen during the next storm? We would find out as we continued our trip south.
Read more in William Sargent’s latest book, Plum Island; 4,000 Years on a Barrier Beach, available in local bookstores and at http://www.ingramcontent.com.