How Far Back Are Cut-backs In Clearwater's Beach Guard Program?
By Anne McKay Garris
Well out into the Gulf of Mexico on Clearwater's public beach are anchored markers, bobbing in the water. On the inside they read, "Swim Area - No swimming beyond this point" on the outside, "Vessel Exclusion Area." These, according to city ordinances, are intended to indicate where the "safe bathing limit" is for the thousands of residents and visitors who enjoy the warm waters of the Gulf at Clearwater Beach, year round.
The title for this thin line in the water that divides swimmers from boaters is going to change, according to an ordinance passed last Thursday at the Clearwater City Council meeting. The area will no longer be referred to in city documents as "safe bathing areas." The markers will now designate the same stretch of water as "areas prohibiting watercraft and aircraft." Mind you, it's been a long time since an airplane intentionally landed in the Gulf off of Clearwater Beach, but you never know.
The same ordinance mandates the administrative responsibility for the Beach Guard program shall be moved from the Harbormaster to the Director of Parks and Recreation, which prompts the question of what this means to a mother headed for the beach with her three children in tow. Does it mean that there are now no safe bathing areas on Clearwater Beach, only a place where boats and planes can't go?
"No," according to Kevin Dunbar, Director of Parks and Recreation for the City of Clearwater. "There will still be beach guards, 365 days a year on Clearwater Beach."
The change in terminology is a liability matter, it turns out, brought on by some court cases in which judges ruled that safe bathing limits could be determined to mean complete protection while in the water, which, of course, no program can guarantee.
According to Dunbar, forbidding watercraft and airplanes in the area will realistically have the same effect as calling it a safe bathing area.
It is clear, however, that the Beach Guard program has been cut back, because of budget problems. Although beach guards will be on duty on Clearwater Beach from the south side of the Hilton Hotel property all the way to the end of the public beach. The northern area, called by the city, the Rockaway area, will be manned only for the ten weeks of Spring Break and full time between Memorial Day and Labor Day. During the other times, when Beach Guards will not be present, they tell swimmers only that there are "vessels beyond this point."
Under the leadership of Beach Guard Captain Joe Lain, Clearwater's Guards have long brought recognition to Clearwater. They were Florida State Champions for four years and came in second another. They were also United State Life Guards Association's South East Regional Champions from 2002 to 2007, and Beach Patrol Of The Year in 2003. With Lain's retirement from the City of Clearwater this year, and money scarce for participation in the competitions, plus a reduction in fulltime Guards, that record is not likely to continue.
Meantime the next challenge for the city is to try to protect swimmers on the north beach (where you always swim at your own risk) from careless jet skiers who roar to shore without regard for the safely of people swimming, or "bathing" in the shallows.
It is good to note that the free beach wheelchair service is still available at the Beach Guard Shack, just south of the Pier 60 parking lot, for use by people unable to walk on the beach.
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