Why’s Everyone Freaked Out About Cape May Beach?

Treacherous surf. Horrific injuries. Cape May’s beach has changed — or has it?

Photography by Ryan Collerd; photograph illustration by Alyse Moyer.

Photography by Ryan Collerd; photograph illustration by Alyse Moyer.

If you really squint at the shape of New Jersey, it looks like a malformed hand pointing angrily at the ocean. And the fingertip that’s jabbing at Mother Nature is Cape May, the southernmost city in the state, where my family has owned a home since 1964. For the most part, Cape May is a sleepy Shore town with an everybody-knows-everybody vibe. It’s the sort of place where most residences, even businesses, don’t lock the doors.

As is true of many small towns, Cape May’s size makes it ripe for rumors. Lately, a lot of the finger-pointing has indeed centered on the ocean. The commenters in Cool Cape May, a Facebook group with more than 12,600 members — roughly four times the year-round population of the town — are panicked over the conditions at the beaches:

I watched a woman’s leg [get] snapped in 12 inches of water.

The sand is like quicksand.

Swim at your own risk.

It’s not just online chatter. Spend an hour at the beach and you’ll hear someone talking about the injuries, the rough waves, the crude tug of the undertow. Parents are scared to death to let their kids boogie-board.

There’s one popular theory as to why beach conditions have seemingly taken a turn for the worse: Over the past 27 years, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has been replenishing the sand that cyclically erodes away from Cape May. Some people argue that this tampering with the beach has resulted in a steeper beach slope and increasingly violent waves that crash closer to shore, propelling bodies into the sand.

It’s only a theory, and the evidence for it is shaky. But this much is certain: Things are getting weird and paranoid in Cape May. The stakes are high — snapped vertebrae and broken bones are about as serious as it gets in a beach town where so many jobs hinge on massive tourism pull. So, true or not, the perception that Cape May’s beach is becoming more dangerous is a dark specter for a town where postcard-perfect image is everything.

THERE’S A FADED photo of me from when I was four or five years old, in the late ’80s. I’m sitting on Cape May’s Congress Beach, facing out toward the Atlantic, foamy water lapping near my toes. This is the beach I remember: fine, powdery sand that packed perfectly into sandcastles; a beach that sloped gradually into waist-deep water where you could dive into gentle rolling waves until your fingers turned to raisins.

The beach I encountered this past summer was something altogether different. The sand was coarser and looser, useless for castles. At low tide, the slope toward the water was so dramatic, I used it as a backrest while reading a book. Kids can be seen sliding down the hill on their rears, as if sledding sans toboggans, then climbing back up for another go.

At high tide, if you don’t know about the hill that lies below the cloudy water, you’ll take a few steps before the ground suddenly drops off beneath you. Folks use phrases like “underwater pothole” to describe the drop, but it’s really more like walking off a small cliff — in a matter of feet, the water goes from waist-deep to nearly over your head.

Then there’s the violently breaking surf. A family friend who was staying at our house this past summer was swept up in a powerful wave while body-surfing in shallow water and thrown so hard into the sand that he dislocated his left shoulder and tore his rotator cuff clean off the bone. He won’t regain full use of his arm for at least another year. And he’s a chef.

According to statistics kept by the United States Lifesaving Association, instances of “major” medical aid in Cape May have ebbed and flowed with great variation over time. But the beach here seems to be more prone to causing injuries than much of the Shore. Take Ocean City, which has also undergone replenishment programs. It averages roughly the same number of instances of major medical aid per year as Cape May but has about three times as many beachgoers. By one measure, serious injuries seem to be increasing in Cape May: In 2014 and 2015, it averaged 26 C-spine injuries per season — double the average over the previous four years. (The city says its data is misleading because less serious injuries are also coded as C-spine.)

For many longtime beachgoers, the injuries seem new and sudden. But the look and feel of Cape May’s beaches have never been particularly constant.

THE TWISTED TALE of the town’s evolving beachfront begins in 1903, when workers undertook the painstaking process of digging out what’s now the 500-acre Cape May Harbor. Eight years later, they constructed stone jetties at the mouth of Cape May Inlet. The Army Corps of Engineers lengthened the jetties during World War II, so that today they stick out just shy of a mile into the ocean.

While the man-made structures proved crucial for ocean navigation, they sucked Cape May dry of its sand. The jetties impeded sand migration from Wildwood and other northern points, hindering the natural process that replaced what Cape May lost to the ocean each year. By the 1980s, many of Cape May’s northern beaches had eroded back to the seawall, so that water lapped up against the cement.

Finally, in 1989, after the city won a years-long lawsuit against the Army Corps that blamed it for getting Cape May into this mess, the Corps set in motion a 50-year replenishment effort that involved pumping massive amounts of sand from deep in the ocean onto Cape May’s beaches roughly every two years. To date, Cape May has been restocked with nearly 11.6 million cubic yards of sand — to the tune of $153 million — resulting in the wide, pristine beaches you see today.

From the outset, the effort was a catch-22 for the city: Allow the sand to erode, and you obliterate the town’s tourism economy. Allow replenishment to go forward, and you accept the potential unintended consequences of a Frankensteined beach. Some people view replenishment as a necessary evil, but to many, it’s just evil.

“The shore break at the beach is deadly! It’s just a matter of time before someone is killed by the odd drop-off at the break,” says Nancy von Seekamm, a seasonal Cape May resident. “This is the result of the beach replenishment.”

Not quite, say the Army Corps and other experts. “We design the upper beach — the part you see above the water — to provide safe transitions and slopes over the profile of the beach,” says Dwight Pakan, the Corps project manager for Cape May. “When it comes to the slope below the water, it doesn’t matter what we do — the natural processes will rework that sand into the equilibrium slope.” Translation: Mother Nature will place the sand exactly how she wants it, your best-laid plans be damned. That doesn’t mean the Corps isn’t playing a role (they are dumping all that sand), but blaming that process for the dangerous slope isn’t quite as simple as many residents think.

There are multiple theories for what might be causing the steepening slope. Stockton University coastline expert Stewart Farrell says slope is largely determined by sand grain size, and Cape May’s sand hasn’t changed much since replenishment began. “The beaches in Cape May are no different from those elsewhere in New Jersey, Delaware or Maryland in terms of steepness,” Farrell says.

Another expert I talked to, Jon Miller, a coastal engineer from Hoboken’s Stevens Institute of Technology, said pretty much the exact opposite. “Cape May has an abnormally steep slope for southern New Jersey,” he says. “The sand grain in Cape May is more coarse, which makes it more steep.” He also said Cape May’s sand grain size has gotten bigger over the years, but by how much depends on your source of data.

So, it’s murky. And herein lies the central problem: If a reporter speaking to coastal engineers can’t get a satisfying answer as to what’s going on here, how can the general public be expected to suss it out?

What the layperson is left with instead are frightening stories like that of 17-year-old Archer Senft, who was injured accidentally diving into a sandbar in Cape May in 2015. He shattered the C5 vertebra in his neck and is now a quadriplegic. Stories like Senft’s have spooked some people into skipping Cape May altogether and heading to milder, flatter Wildwood Crest. “Now that my kids have had a taste of Wildwood Crest and gone in the water up to their waist, I don’t know if we’ll see the Cape May beach again,” says Amy Valentino, a mother of three who grew up going to Cape May but won’t let her kids dip their ankles in the water there now.

There hasn’t been a mass exodus yet. Annual estimates of the town’s visitors steadily creep higher, and it’d be specious to attribute a dip in beach-tag sales through June 2016 to the hysteria over injuries, because, as one business owner put it, “It’s not like there’s a great white 100 feet offshore.”

Maybe not, but there is a real and growing anxiety onshore. What’s angering residents most is that the City of Cape May seems eager to dismiss the injury problem as hearsay.

IF THERE’S ONE PERSON the Cape May truthers distrust most, it’s the town’s mayor, Ed Mahaney. In August, an editorial in the local weekly magazine, Exit Zero, compared him to North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un: “Mahaney is an unpredictable bully, a vindictive, malevolent little dictator who has no place in City Hall.”

A onetime educator, Mahaney has been in and out of Cape May politics for more than 20 years. People either love him or hate him. Some residents praise his record on economic development — Mahaney successfully rallied for the state’s first desalination plant to be built in Cape May — while others say he wields undue influence over the town.

Over three mayoral terms, Mahaney has survived a recall campaign, accusations of strong-arm politics, and an election challenger four years ago who failed to unseat him by just 12 votes. A number of people would only speak off the record for this story, apparently because they didn’t want to rattle his cage. For instance, my neighbor, who’s running for mayor on a platform to make Cape May beaches safer, opted not to do an interview.

When I reached out to Mahaney for an interview, he happily rearranged his schedule. In fact, it seemed like half the city payroll rearranged their schedules: Mahaney invited the city manager, the city solicitor, two beach patrol representatives (one of them a guy named “Buzzy”) and a PR flack to join us on a weekday afternoon at City Hall, a two-story brick building that once housed the town’s high school. The mayor wore a suit but no jacket, Dwight Schrute glasses, and a mop of white, short-cropped hair. “I don’t agree that there are a whole lot of people that are concerned and think the beaches are unsafe,” Mahaney said, right off the bat. “I think that’s a perception that’s been put out there.”

Mahaney thinks the loudest voices complaining about beach safety aren’t Cape May residents or even regular vacationers. The mayor notes that the ringleader of Cool Cape May is an out-of-towner who only vacations there once or twice a year. (His name is Ben Miller, and he says, to the contrary, he visits “more like five times a year.”) Of course, the mayor wouldn’t know much about this shadow campaign against him. “I don’t use [social media] because I was advised not to use it as an elected official,” he said.

This wasn’t the only discrepancy during our two-hour meeting. Mahaney oscillated between rejecting the notion that Cape May’s beaches were perilous and hitting me over the head with all the ways the city is taking beach safety seriously.

Mahaney and company pointed to a study conducted in Delaware that failed to find a strong correlation between beach slope and injuries. They produced data showing that only .02 percent of all visitors to the Cape May beach last year received medical aid. They discussed a study conducted by engineering firm Hatch Mott MacDonald, paid for by the city, that “clearly showed that there was no scientific evidence to link the head and neck injuries to the beach slope,” Mahaney said. (Actually, Douglas Gaffney, who ran the study, says the firm didn’t examine the injury question at all. It did conclude that the slopes haven’t changed dramatically over the years and that any human intervention to change them would probably be short-lived.)

And yet Cape May has rolled out signs at beach entrances explaining how to avoid injuries in its waters, emblazoned with reminders like, “When in doubt, don’t go out!” Brochures featuring similar information are supposed to be handed out by beach taggers to every patron (although I didn’t get one when I visited in August). There’s now a town Beach Safety Committee.

In other words, the city’s message is: Be extremely careful, because there’s nothing to worry about.

CHAD DE SATNICK has been the most vocal champion for beach safety in town for the better part of 15 years. In 2001, he fractured two vertebrae while surfing in Cape May; through a complex surgery, he’s made a full recovery. But ever since, de Satnick’s been asking tough questions, like why the city hasn’t called together a task force of federal, state and university researchers to study the problem once and for all.

“[City officials] don’t initiate the proper communication to get the right people involved,” de Satnick says. “It’s hard to get answers that don’t feel like lip service.” No wonder there’s so much speculation in town.

As I sat on the beach in Cape May on a hot summer day, two children were playing in the shore break a dozen yards to my left. I couldn’t help overhearing their mother worry aloud to her husband about how rough the waves seemed. I thought about my 15-month-old son, Noah, and whether I’d feel safe letting him ride the waves in the town where I’d done so hundreds of times as a kid. Was it worth the risk of being wrong? Was the water really that dangerous?

Then it hit me: There’s always Wildwood Crest.

Additional reporting by Malcolm Burnley.
Published as “Cape Fear” in the October 2016 issue of Philadelphia magazine.