Ocean Swimming To Be Government-Regulated In L.A.
WOWSA, Los Angeles County, California. Time and time again, we have always opined that open water swimming in the Pacific Ocean is far more safe than cycling or running on the roads of Southern California (read “Is Swimming The Most Dangerous Leg In Triathlons?“). Based on the number of documented cycling accidents compared to the vastly fewer number of ocean swimming incidents, swimming in the ocean has always been safer than cycling. No comparison. Hands on, swimming is safer however way you measure it. In the land of the ubiquitous automobile, congested streets, and road rage, there is always risk to one’s life and limb while cycling on the roads. There are many triathletes and cyclists who know of fellow athletes who have been unfortunately hit or killed while cycling on the streets of L.A. Compare this number to the number of swimmers who have been hurt, rescued or killed while swimming in the Pacific Ocean. The number of open water swimmers hurt, rescued or killed in the ocean compared to the number of road injuries and fatalities are so extraordinarily small. But the County of Los Angeles is spending its limited resources on the employment of 8 enforcement officers to patrol the beaches of Los Angeles. Their job? To look for ocean swimmers breaking the law. The law-breakers are now identified as any group of swimmers who gather for a workout or other joint training activity and who do not (a) have a permit, (b) pre-pay a US$200 administrative fee, (c) possess proof of liability insurance, and (d) reimburse Los Angeles County for the cost (US$50 per hour) of any extra lifeguards to watch over their swim. The law-breakers are identified by the 8 roaming enforcement officers onshore and can be fined between US$100 and US$500 for gathering without a permit. The new governmental regulation and requirements are, frankly, oppressive, burdensome, and unnecessary. Kerry Silverstrom, chief deputy director of the Los Angeles County Department of Beaches and Harbors, explains the reasons for the new policy, “We want to make sure that we know when these groups are coming, so they don’t interfere with ordinary beach access or something we’ve scheduled, and so we can make sure that they’re safe.” So the publicly stated reasons for the new policy are public interference and private safety. The enforcement officers are instructed to patrol the beaches and look out for groups of swimmers or triathletes who appear to be organized. “We’ll issue them a flyer the first time we meet them, and tell them that if they’re conducting a business or an organized activity, they need a permit,” says Vivian Sanner, who is responsible for beach code enforcement at the Department of Beaches and Harbors. “When 30 people jump in the water for a swim at seven in the morning, it’s really important that lifeguards be there,” says Carol Baker. “Some of these meetup groups say they’re not organized and then you go online and see that they are.” But both reasons – public interference and private safety – are rooted in misinformation and miscalculation. These regulations make no sense whatsoever. We have never seen or heard of any group of ocean swimmers interfere with ordinary beach access. Never. Ever. Not only are the numbers of swimmers too small to impact the wide open spaces of the Los Angeles beaches or parking availability, but swimmers also take up a miniscule amount of space both in the water and on the sand. Even when 1,200 swimmers compete in the annual Dwight Crum Pier-to-Pier Swim, by far the largest open water swimming event on the beaches of Southern California, the space they command in the water, on the sand, and in parking spots is tiny relative to what is available. And most of the other organized open water swims in Los Angeles have far fewer participants, especially training swims and meet-up groups. So to state that one reason for the new regulation is so swimmers will not interfere with beach access is simply not based on reality. Of the thousands of beach saves made annually by Los Angeles County lifeguards, very few are made of swimmers or triathletes. Most saves, by far, are made by those who cannot swim or who do not regularly swim. Lifeguards rarely make saves of people who enter the water with goggles, swim caps, racing suits and wetsuits who are doing point-to-point swims or out-and-back swims. Extremely rarely. So to state that another reason for the new regulation is to make sure the swimmers are safe is also not based on reality. What reasonable people and experienced open water swimming coaches always recommend is to swim in groups in the ocean. This is the safe way to swim. If anything, the government should be encouraging swimmers to swim in groups rather than push training sessions underground or at night when the officers head home. Not only is the permit requirements expensive, especially for smaller groups and training sessions, but they are also cumbersome especially in terms of its insurance requirements. As a result of the regulations, an immediate outcry from the targeted communities arose on social media. Individuals from triathlon teams to Scott Zornig of the Santa Barbara Channel Swimming Association are using social media platforms in an attempt to overturn this unnecessary government oversight and unwise use of its resources. While we do not believe other California coastal jurisdictions will repeat the decisions of their colleagues in Los Angeles County, some swimmers believe this kind of policy will soon domino up and down the marine-sport-crazed state of California. “This [regulation] is upsetting because it sets a precedence that may lead to other government organizations considering this kind of arbitrary permit nonsense,” says one long-time ocean swimmer. “Any of the county enforcement agents could research our activities and target us for fines. This does not bode well for open water swimming.” But we are more bullish that the sport of open water swimming will continue to grow and flourish while growing responsibly and unfettered by the grubby hands of local government officials. We are hopeful that the County of Los Angeles will do a cost-benefit analysis of its employment of 8 code enforcement officers in the future. Ultimately, we are hopeful that decision-makers will determine that this particular use of resources for this specific policy was unwise. What are the alternatives? There are plenty. What if the personnel costs of their 8 officers and the resources that are used to implement this rules were instead used to teach the children and parents of Los Angeles how to swim? Imagine if the 8 officers were experienced open water swimming coaches who could go to under-served communities and share their knowledge and passion of open water swimming? Or even, what if these resources were used to supply bigger buoys at designated or popular ocean swim courses? Or perhaps create a county-wide website focusing on the opportunities and challenges of open water swimming, augmented with a mobile app, that provides water temperature and water conditions and information on safe open water swimming courses throughout Los Angeles County? What if this money were used to encourage people how to protect our ocean or marine life – or for open water swimming clinics throughout the summer? We compare what the County of Los Angeles has decided versus what other jurisdictions have done from Hawaii to New Hampshire. While the state of New Hampshire issued legislation years ago to give the right-of-way to open water swimmers in its lakes, the state of Hawaii designated separate lanes for swimmers and stand-up paddlers at its popular Ala Moana Beach. Other jurisdictions have come up with innovative solutions that have enhanced the marine environment (see here). There are simply so many more useful allocations of funds and talents rather than what the County of Los Angeles came up with. Why would the government use its limited resources to police the aquatic activities of a small number of individuals who occasionally use the vast resources available at Los Angeles County beaches – instead of using its resources more intelligently as its leverages the local open water swimming community and educates others how to interact with the Pacific Ocean? For more information on the Department of Beaches and Harbors usage policy governing the Los Angeles County beaches (see here), visit here. Photo courtesy of Ray Hoffmann of swimmers at a government-approved ocean swim in Seal Beach. Copyright © 2013 by World Open Water Swimming Association