Lewes needs to act now to prevent injuries at beaches

July 20, 2020

On June 27, I saw something that will stay in my mind forever: a 16-year-old boy stepping into the water just beyond the Lewes Beach shoreline and doing a short, simple dive. Moments later - when it was apparent that he had hit his head on hard sand and couldn’t move below his neck - his aunt raced in, supported him so that he could keep his face above the water and breathe, then turned him over to off-duty paramedics who applied CPR and stabilized him so he could be transported to Beebe Healthcare.

An hour later he was on his way by helicopter to A.I. duPont Children’s Hospital in Wilmington. Nearly two weeks later he’s beginning a long road to a hopeful recovery with the love of a wonderful family with long ties to Lewes, and support from a wide group of medical professionals and representatives of the Christopher Reeve Foundation.

I don’t think anyone who saw what happened to that boy has slept well in the time since. It was terrifying and has brought an intense sadness into the lives of many people.

We can cry and pray and beg whatever God we believe in to keep it from happening to other kids, but we can - and must - do more. Beginning immediately, the City of Lewes needs to erect signs warning people not to dive into the water anywhere along the beach - including off of the recreational mats that are often put several dozen feet offshore, or off the many boats that come close to shore so kids and others can disembark in shallow water.

While I haven’t had time to consult medical professionals, I believe many who work here at the beach will agree based on what I learned from Dr. Paul Cowen at Beebe Healthcare, who spoke at length with me for a 2018 article on “surf zone” injuries. He described many days when the emergency room’s waiting area was filled with the scent of suntan oil because so many beachgoers had been slammed by breaking waves into the sand. Many suffered life-altering spinal injuries, and many reported being completely surprised at the force of the waves even on days when the winds were low.

Today, many more people are aware of those dangers on the ocean beaches, and thanks to public education efforts have learned not to “turn their backs” on breaking waves.

Many have personally experienced the steep drop-offs that can result in standing in waist deep water one moment and neck-deep water two steps later. While there isn’t sufficient scientific evidence to prove it, that experience has led many to believe sand replenishment on the ocean beaches is creating more dangerous conditions. As a result they’re more careful around those breaking waves along the ocean.

Right now it isn’t reasonable to expect that same level of intuitive caution in the bay. The drop-offs and sudden rises are more unexpected under the calm surface of the water. And most of Lewes Beach isn’t protected by guards who could warn folks to be careful. I can already hear pushback from “locals” who will tell you about how they’ve been swimming in Delaware Bay since childhood without danger.

Unfortunately, the past isn’t an indication of the future. Upcoming work on the breakwaters, eroding shorelines and increasingly intense storms due to climate change along with more unpredictable water depth tied to the tides are bound to make diving dangers more common.

For these reasons and more, warning signs are a crucial first step. We also need a longer-term educational effort to ensure more people understand that diving into water when you can’t see the bottom is as dangerous as diving into a shallow swimming pool. Local students need to learn about this in Cape Henlopen’s public and private schools. 

Visitors checking into summertime rentals need to be warned so they can enjoy the beach safely. And public officials need to recognize their responsibility to warn the public right now, and in the years to come.

This boy’s recovery will be long and complicated. Preventing future injuries can and should be simple.

We need to act responsibly by posting warnings and heeding them.

Chris Beakey is an author and Lewes resident.
  • Cape Gazette commentaries are written by readers whose occupations, education, community positions or demonstrated focus in particular areas offer an opportunity to expand our readership's understanding or awareness of issues of interest.

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