By Donald Wittkowski
For many beachgoers, the trips across the sand are a relative breeze, a short trek while heading for a favorite spot near the water’s edge.
For others, though, the deep, powdery beach sand is like trudging through a desert, one challenging step after another. It is especially difficult for senior citizens, people with disabilities and families with young children or baby strollers.
But at the 34th Street beach, a 200-foot-long blue mat made of hard plastic creates a pathway that allows everyone to walk on top of the sand instead of getting bogged down in it. The mat also makes it much easier for people in wheelchairs to gain access across the beach.
In what is Ocean City’s latest project to improve access to its beaches, the long mat at 34th Street extends all the way to the high tide line and is part of a test program this summer. It offers an amenity for some, and to others, it provides the only way to easily access the beach.
“I love this. I really love it how easy it is,” beachgoer Laura Tucker said as she pushed her 3-year-old daughter, Gemma, across the mat while the little girl sat in a baby stroller. “Without it, it would be so hard for me that it would be nearly impossible.”
Tucker, a summer vacationer from Swoyersville, Pa., noted that the mats are also a great help to beachgoers who don’t have young children. She said longer mats would make it easier for people to lug chairs, umbrellas and other beach gear through the sand.
“It’s more convenient for everyone, even people who don’t have strollers,” she said in an interview Thursday.
Last summer, Brigantine installed beach mats to the shoreline at its 16th Street beach, making it possible for people in wheelchairs to get close to the ocean. Ocean City modeled the plan for 34th Street after Brigantine’s project.
City officials will monitor 34th Street over the summer to see if more mats should be extended all the way to the high tide line at other beaches in town. Through the first two months of summer, the experiment at 34th Street appears to be a success, Councilman Bob Barr said.
“So far, I’ve heard positive feedback from beachgoers, from residents and from the city administration,” Barr said.
Barr, a Fourth Ward councilman whose district includes 34th Street, has been one of the city’s leading advocates for creating more access to the beaches. He and other members of City Council have worked with Mayor Jay Gillian’s administration on the project.
Born with cerebral palsy, Barr uses a wheelchair for his mobility. He said he tried out the mat at 34th Street earlier this summer for a trip to the beach.
“It worked for me,” he said. “It makes it much easier to use your own wheelchair that you’re comfortable with.”
The extra-long mat at 34th Street serves as a trial run because it is the only one of its kind that extends all the way to the high tide line, Barr said. Ocean City has mobility mats at more than 50 beaches in town, but they are shorter than the one at 34th Street and don’t come as close to the water.
The mat on 34th Street effectively creates a sitting area closer to the ocean for people in wheelchairs. City spokesman Doug Bergen said other beaches are being considered for wheelchair access and sitting areas.
“Limiting factors for the expansion of the program include the need to keep the mats clear of sand throughout the day (particularly on the paths for wheelchairs), as they are extremely popular with people without disabilities, and the need to be able to remove them from the beach quickly in the event of a major storm,” Bergen said in an email.
There are two more wheelchair sitting areas in Ocean City. One is at Surf Road in conjunction with a new ramp to the beach. The other is at the Ocean City Beach Patrol station between 58th and 59th streets, just off the handicap-accessible ramp to the beach, Bergen said.
At 34th Street, the entire path to the beach is about 450 feet from the restrooms. About 200 feet of that pathway is a distinctive blue mat stretching out to the sitting area, Bergen said.
“There are approximately 80 mat sections that make up the path and sitting area. The approximate cost of the mat material alone is $13,200,” he said.
The 34th Street beach also includes dune crossovers and handrails. The city also has a program that provides beach-accessible wheelchairs at no cost.
The beach-accessible wheelchairs are equipped with extra-large rubber wheels to make them easier to push through the sand.
Danielle Frantz, a vacationer from Philadelphia, uses a beach wheelchair for her 65-year-old mother, Gayla Frantz, who has a disability. Danielle Frantz said the beach wheelchairs can be hard to push in the sand, underscoring what she believes is a critical need for even more mobility mats.
“Yes, we have problems walking through the sand,” she said. “Going back and forth to the bathroom is miserable.”
Frantz, however, is happy that the 34th Street beach includes a mat that extends closer to the water.
“This is quite easier, for sure,” she noted. “They should do this at more places.”
Frantz’s boyfriend, Dave Law, said the deep, soft sand can be even harder to walk cross while carrying bags and other beach gear. Mobility mats that extend closer to the water would make Ocean City’s beaches even more popular with vacationers, he believes.
“I think it would encourage more people to come here,” Law said.