Health Board Reopens Small Beach To Swimming

By: Alan Pollock

Topics: Erosion , Beaches

Chatham seal.

Andrew Harding’s Lane Beach Safer After Inlet Shifts

CHATHAM Though the move is largely symbolic, the board of health this week voted to lift a ban on swimming at the end of Andrew Harding’s Lane in the Old Village. The ban had been in place so long that current members of the health board didn’t seem to know it was in effect.

“It’s not as treacherous as it was when the board of health originally banned swimming there,” Health Agent Judith Giorgio told the board Monday. The change came at the recommendation of Harbormaster Stuart Smith.

“It’s a popular place,” he said. “It is regularly and routinely used for swimming, even though it is technically a non-swimming area.”

The board ordered the swimming ban there in June 2011 after an accretion of sand brought the beach closer to the main harbor entrance channel. Swift currents near the shore deepened the channel, and the drop-off from swimmers went from ankle deep to 20 feet or more within a few yards of the shoreline.

Citing the popularity of the beach with Old Village residents and the accretion of sand that made it possible to access the beach by foot from Lighthouse Beach to the south, the health board worried about a potential tragedy. The year before, a youngster was injured when the flotation device she was riding on got caught in the current and she ended up striking a revetment.

“There's definitely the potential for a tragedy there,” health board member Edwin Whittaker said at the time.

The main harbor inlet at the time was located across from the lighthouse, and the north cut opposite Minister’s Point was still small. Now, the main harbor inlet is about a mile further south, and as a result, the heavy surf, currents and undertows once present at Andrew Harding’s Lane “don’t exist to that extent,” Smith said this week. Though not strictly observed, the swimming ban is no longer needed, he said.

“There’s no town presence there, so it’s obviously not enforced,” Smith said. “But more importantly, the conditions are just entirely different.”

Health and Natural Resources Director Robert Duncanson told the board that two key factors have changed since the ban was imposed.

“One, there was a fairly steep drop-off in that area because of the way the currents were running,” he said. And secondly, the speed of the current right off the beach has dropped significantly. According to a bathymetric study of the harbor done by Applied Coastal Research and Engineering, the current at nearby Watch Hill has declined between 67 and 77 percent in recent years. The area “has become much more stable, much quieter,” Duncanson said.

The health board asked what would happen if it lifted the ban.

“I’m not sure much of anything would happen, other than people would not be swimming in technical violation of your order,” Smith said. The board voted unanimously to lift its previous order, and Duncanson said the town would immediately remove any no swimming signs that might remain.

Like other so-called “rural beaches” such as Pleasant Street Beach or Forest Beach, the beach at Andrew Harding’s Lane is not staffed with lifeguards. There is a beach patrol to the south at Lighthouse Beach, and while those patrol members are trained to rescue swimmers, they are not lifeguards. In creating the beach patrol years ago, town officials argued that posting traditional lifeguards at Lighthouse Beach would imply that swimming is safe there, which officials argued it was not. Swift currents still exist near the lighthouse, and seals and white sharks are present nearby.

Andrew Harding's Lane is officially a town landing, under the jurisdiction of the board of selectmen, rather than a beach. Prior to the 1987 break in North Beach it was a popular swimming spot, with a parking lot that accommodated a few dozen vehicles. After the break, the area was heavily hit by erosion, and the parking lot and nine homes were lost between Andrew Harding's Lane and Holway Street. The town purchased approximately one acre of beachfront property north of Andrew Harding's Lane in 2004 for $315,000, with the Old Village Association contributing $150,000 and the remainder coming from Land Bank funds.