Shoreline changes that follow beach replenishment projects spark complaints from wave riders — and safety concerns from others

By Lynn R. Parks  |  Photograph by Chuck Snyder
From the August 2015 issue

shorebreak Shore Break - Delaware Beach LifeJim McGrath isn’t certain of the exact day. But sometime in July 2014, he wandered down to the beach from his Bethany Surf Shop and noted how rough the surf was.

“There must have been a storm out in the ocean,” he says. “Whatever it was, the swell was big and there were some really nasty shore breaks.”

The waves were crashing onto the sand with such intensity, he recalls, that “people were getting hurt like crazy.” He told a nearby member of the Bethany Beach Patrol that the beach should be closed. “Swimming in that was a good way to get killed,” he recalls. 

And sure enough, a short time later the beach was closed. Lifeguards posted signs warning that it was not safe to venture into the water.

Of course, Delaware’s Atlantic beaches have always had their occasional days of heavy surf — days that wave riders of all sorts welcomed with relish. But in recent years the state’s shoreline has changed so much that a day at the beach, heavy surf or not, sometimes isn’t as much fun as it used to be, McGrath asserts. 

Sand replenishment projects have made the slope steeper, he notes, and have covered up groins and jetties that used to make waves start to curl farther from shore. Now, waves don’t break until they hit the shore, making many of the state’s beaches unsuitable for surfing. 

“In the old days, we used to surf for an hour a day, or even two,” McGrath says. “Now, that’s all gone, gone, gone.”

Colin Herlihy agrees. A native of Bethany Beach and owner of the Wave Riding School in Ocean City, Herlihy has been surfing for 30 years — since he was 4: “I would ride my bike to the beach every day to surf. Now, I don’t even try. They have ruined it for surfing. Sometimes, I just stand on the boardwalk and look out over the ocean. It definitely makes me sad.”

When Herlihy and McGrath want to surf, they head south to Assateague Island. There has been no beach replenishment project at that barrier island, and the waves break the same as they always have.

In a 2014 report titled “The State of Surfing in Delaware,” the Delaware chapter of the Surfrider Foundation (an international group dedicated to protecting the world’s beaches) says that of the nine coastal Sussex beaches that used to attract surfers, only two — at Cape Henlopen State Park’s Herring Point and the south side of the Indian River Inlet — remain surfable. 

“Most surfers agree that beach nourishment has negatively impacted surfing in Delaware by steepening shore slope angles, causing waves to break closer to shore, and by burying groins in sand,” the report says. The beaches it cites where waves are no longer good for surfing: Cape Henlopen at Gordons Pond, Rehoboth Beach, Dewey Beach, Delaware Seashore Tower Road, the north side of the Indian River Inlet, Bethany Beach and Fenwick Island. 

And to some, there’s more to this situation than simply a loss of surfing spots.

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