Beach Bummed Print
Written by Margaret Griffis, BT Contributor   
August 2017

Blame Floatopia for crackdowns on... Boogie Boards?

LBoogieBoard_1ifeguards at Haulover Beach recently ordered Jill Kahn out of the water. Her misdeed? Using a flotation device -- in her case, a Boogie Board -- in violation of an old and obscure regulation that has recently been resuscitated.

The Miami Beach native says she and her siblings, Patti and Robert, have been enjoying the waves at Haulover since the 1960s, when surf culture was at its peak. Their father, former Circuit Court Judge Martin Kahn, took all three kids to buy their first surfboard from the JCPenney store at what was then called the 163rd Street Shopping Center. It took all three kids to carry the heavy wooden board, she recalls, but they felt very cool.

Kahn, who is a professional photographer and musician, visits Haulover often with her dogs, Charlie and Lux Interior. It’s a great place for her to unwind and cool off, she says. Although she enjoys exercising on her Boogie Board, she mostly uses it for her dogs. Charlie loves the ocean, but he’s getting on in years and doesn’t have the stamina he used to.

“I just throw Charlie up on the board,” says Kahn, “and kick around with him on it.” Lux, on the other hand, tends to stay ashore but rides the board between romps with other pups on the sand.

Early on July 8, however, the lifeguard advised her that a Miami-Dade County ordinance bans all flotation devices in the water, with few exceptions. She was flabbergasted.

The lifeguard also whistled at a couple of kids who were using floats nearby, but they didn’t seem to understand the odd instruction they heard over the megaphone. Kahn swam over to try to explain it to them, although she could barely comprehend it herself.

Later, while she was still a little ticked-off, she complained on Facebook about her experience. Nobody she knew had heard of the county ordinance either, but all wondered what prompted it.

Floatopia came to mind immediately.

Floatopias are huge parties usually held at the college-area beaches across the country that can draw thousands of young people. The only expectation is that you arrive with a flotation device -- the wilder, the better -- and a distinct urge to party hard. They’re not formally “organized,” which means that no one is officially “in charge.”

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Someone or some group picks a time and location, and word goes out on Facebook and other social media, but the source remains basically anonymous. This spares non-organizers the legal responsibilities -- such as permits, liability insurance, security, cleanup, lawsuits -- that would accompany a traditionally planned event.

Floatopia began at the University of California, Santa Barbara, in 2004 and spread up and down California before hitting Miami in 2012.

Attending the twice-yearly Floatopia here in Miami is a visual feast. Brightly colored floats, some of which can carry several people, are eye-catching even on a rainy day, like the one that occurred in April 2016 on South Beach. The participants were clearly enjoying themselves, although some were visibly intoxicated. There were reports of fights.

The size and close proximity of the floats in the water also seemed conducive to disaster. If someone were to become trapped under the floats, lifeguards would have had a difficult time seeing them, let alone reaching them. Traffic, coming and going, was a nightmare.

The biggest problem, however, is the litter. When a heavy downpour began in April 2016, many of the partiers just abandoned their flotation devices, along with other litter they didn’t want to haul home. The next day, cleanup volunteers gathered enough trash off the beaches, and out of the water, to fill several Dumpsters.

The area where Floatopia took place, just a couple blocks north of Government Cut, is also in the path of manatees, sea turtles, and other endangered creatures that don’t need more debris to choke on. Infuriated Miami Beach officials promised the event would never happen again.

According to Victoria Galan, communications manager for Miami-Dade County, word got out that Floatopia was trying to move north to Haulover this past April and call itself Floatnik. It may have been the same anonymous organizers or a new set of people, but the attempt made sense. If Miami Beach is off limits, a county-run beach that welcomes nudists and dogs might be more open to chaotic fun. It wasn’t. The Surfrider Foundation contacted the county’s parks division with its concerns, and to stop the problem quickly, officials resorted to an obscure law crafted by the county commission circa 1980 that prohibits all flotation devices in the water, with some reasonable exceptions.

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The rule is listed in the Miami-Dade County Rules & Regulations codebook, § 26-1, under “Recreational Activities”:

(b) No person, minor or adult, shall enter or be in water at any bathing area wearing, carrying, pushing or towing any flotation device; provided, however, that surfboarding may be engaged in at certain prescribed areas that may from time to time be specifically designated for such sport by posted signs. Notwithstanding the above prohibition, the department is authorized to permit the use of any such device when required to accommodate park supervised programs or the needs of individuals with disabilities.”

So if you or your kids have been using an unapproved flotation device these last 37 years or so on any beach in Miami-Dade County, you were technically breaking the law. The regulation extends as well to all city beaches in the county, such as Miami Beach and Key Biscayne, not just county-operated beaches.

Obviously, Floatopia wasn’t the original cause for the regulation. “It all stems from the fact that people use these flotation devices as a safety crutch,” says Galan. “They’re not very good swimmers or they don’t know how to swim. What happens is, when a bather goes in the water with a device that’s not Coast Guard-approved, the lifeguard loses the ability to judge if the person knows how to swim or not. The bather goes out too far with a noodle, and it makes it all very difficult for the lifeguard.”

It didn’t seem necessary to enforce the rule -- until now. Galan says the recent implementation is a direct response to Floatopia. Due to the event’s “organic” or “unplanned” nature, officials could only attack it by requiring everyone follow the law.

“It’s like one of those things, where you give one kid permission to do something and until they take advantage of it, you keep going,” says Galan. “The second they take advantage, kid number two doesn’t get to try it. So that’s what happened. Over time, because the rule wasn’t enforced, people started to take advantage -- until Floatopia.”

Weak swimmers shouldn’t worry too much about losing their floats, Galan maintains. In conjunction with enforcing the rules, Miami-Dade County also launched its Every Lesson Counts campaign, which advocates water safety and swim lessons. The county hopes to give a million lessons over the next year. She encourages budding swimmers to call the nearest Miami-Dade park (www.miamidade.gov/parks/learn-to-swim-program.asp) for schedules. Prices vary, and some parks may be able to offer children scholarships toward instruction.

Meanwhile, Kahn, who describes herself as a good swimmer but not a surf rat, says she just plans on arriving earlier than the lifeguards, and bringing the dogs, “because Charlie loves it.”

 

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