With just over a week until Memorial Day, the start of the beach season, pleasure-seekers flocking to Montauk's Ditch Plain beach, a hangout that The Wall Street Journal once called "about as close as New Yorkers can get to an 'Endless Summer'-style surf heaven," could find an inhospitable seascape officially closed to swimmers.
Wind and storms, beginning with Hurricane Sandy last fall, have stripped the beach of sand, leaving only rocky hardpan on which to spread blankets or towels, exposing hazardous, formerly buried, chunks of concrete, and replacing the soft sand at the surf line and undersea with piles of large stones.
East Hampton Town officials learned Tuesday from Councilman Peter Van Scoyoc that the town's superintendent of recreation, John Rooney, and John McGeehan, the first assistant chief of the town lifeguards, who have been monitoring Ditch for months, have recommended, in the interest of safety, that the beach stay closed to swimming, with no lifeguards on duty, unless or until conditions change.
The situation is unlikely to affect the surfers who ride the waves at a widely touted surf break east of Ditch's designated bathing beach, though sunbathers who enjoy watching them could be discouraged from taking a dip in the shadow of No Swimming signs.
"So much of the sand has been taken away during the course of the winter. Historically, sand will come in and fill in over the spring, and it hasn't really done that this spring," Mr. McGeehan said on Tuesday.
Lifeguards have already been assigned for this summer at Ditch, and would normally take up their posts on weekends starting next week, going to full-time daily hours beginning in mid-June, as at other town beaches. This year, though, the conditions could easily leave Ditch out of the early-summer mix, Mr. McGeehan said, "unless in the next week there's an extraordinary turnaround and a lot of sand moves in there."
Rather than waiting for sand to accrue and replenish the beach naturally, Mr. Van Scoyoc suggested at the town board meeting Tuesday that it might be trucked in or pumped from offshore, something that has been done before. "This is the worst we've certainly seen in the last decade," said the councilman.
Not only could swimmers encounter underwater obstructions — or body surfers find themselves whooshed ashore onto a bed of rocks — but people strolling along the beach, in its present state, will have to clamber over half-buried boulders. The ground, Mr. McGeehan pointed out, is also hazardous "to lifeguards, in case we had to move quickly across the beach to assist someone."
"I can't in good conscience put staff there," Mr. Rooney said. "We have to hope that nature puts something back, or the town board does something. We've been discussing it constantly since February, March."
The popular beach was described last summer in "A Guide to Montauk's 'Hampsters,' the Fedora Rating Scale," a blog posting on guestofaguest.com, as "the first stop off the train for many hampsters." And this summer, given the storm damage to beaches on the Jersey Shore, even more tourists could head this way, the recreation superintendent said yesterday.
Given the drastic shoreline changes, Town Supervisor Bill Wilkinson said Tuesday, "I would advise everyone in the town that when they're swimming for the first time this year, to be cautious. We had an incredible storm. Everything has shifted. That storm moved rather large boulders. So I would be very, very careful. Wade into the water this year." The town board will ultimately determine when and whether Ditch Plain beach is officially opened, he said.
Councilwoman Theresa Quigley expressed concern about whether the lifeguards assigned to guard swimmers at Ditch would lose their jobs should the beach remain closed.
"If they don't get called into the job, they don't get called into the job," Mr. Wilkinson said. "I would assume that the labor is attached to the project. So if the project isn't there, you don't take the labor and absorb it somewhere else."
But, Ms. Quigley said, should those staffers find other jobs, and then the beach becomes safe enough to reopen, the town could face a shortage of lifeguards.
Instead of opening Ditch Plain during the early part of the season, it's possible that Kirk Park, the westerly beach in Montauk, which is normally not guarded or opened for swimming until mid-June, could open early, along with Edison (Nick's) Beach, which is set for its normal opening on Memorial Day weekend.
The condition of the beach at Ditch this year is a new dilemma, and at the moment, it's touch-and-go, Mr. Rooney said. "We just have to watch and see what happens, unless the town makes a decision to do something artificially."
But, he said, even if officials decide to bear the expense of dumping loads of sand onto the beach, that sand could all be washed away in a single storm.
"We can't help the hand we're dealt," Mr. Rooney said.
"Unfortunately, the ocean is going to do what the ocean is going to do," said Mr. McGeehan.