Making waves about access

Windsurfers request that an area at Fort De Soto Park be set aside for them.

By Nicole Bardo-Colon, Times Staff Writer
Published May 30, 2007

TIERRA VERDE - Last week a line was drawn along the shores of North Beach at Fort De Soto Park, when windsurfers filed a proposal to reclaim a spot now designated for swimmers.

Members of the windsurfing community are upset that buoys that designate swim-only areas at the county park now dot an area that has long been a prime launch location for windsurfers.

The swim-only areas are so designated from May to September and have been in effect for the past two summers.

At issue for windsurfers is that officials have been inconsistent in enforcing access to the designated areas. The same areas windsurfers have enjoyed all year are now off-limits as more people crowd one of the best beaches in the nation.

Two years ago Pinellas County Parks and Recreation Department petitioned the Coast Guard to make a portion of North Beach a designated swimming area, said Bob Browning, supervisor of Parks and Recreation for the Southern District of Pinellas County. For years, the area in question had been considered unsafe for swimming due to rip currents.

According to Browning, there was a cut between the islands and the water passing through sometimes made the currents unsafe, but because of the natural build up of sand, the cut has filled in, thus making the area safe for swimmers.

The latest designation marks the third safe bathing area at the park. There are 6 miles of beach and about three-quarters of a mile is designated for swimming - where lifeguards are posted from the end of April to September, said Browning.

"I'm not sure why the windsurfing community has said they need this specific area, " Browning said.

St. Pete Beach resident Britt Viehman, who frequents North Beach, said little consideration was given to wind sports when the park made this change.

"There was no discussion. We showed up and there was the buoys, " Viehman said.

The park rules prohibit hardened vessels from entering swim areas.

A line in the water

Although the newest swim area was added almost two summers ago, the debate resurfaced when St. Petersburg resident Ty Heston, a wind surfer who also frequents North Beach, sent a May 18 proposal via e-mail to Parks and Recreation, said Browning.

The proposal expressed concern over the buoys and requested an area specifically for windsurfers.

Viehman said there have been inconsistencies when the officials allow them to surf and when they are forced to leave.

"To be able to windsurf there, we need a designated area, " Viehman said.

The veteran windsurfer said this is not usually a problem because the prime conditions for windsurfing occur when there is a cold front, but he said the problem comes closer to the summer when there are a lot of swimmers on the beach.

He said if they have to go too far down the beach, the current pulls windsurfers out too far, possibly into the mouth of the bay, which could become unsafe for them.

In situations where swimmers are in the open beach, not in areas designated for swimming, Browning said the beach goes to whoever arrived first.

"It's an unwritten policy, " Browning said.

He said the department plans to address the issue after the bustle from Memorial Day has died down.

"We're going to work with them - possibly move the north buoys south a little bit, " Browning said.

There are no plans, however, to designate a specific area for wind surfing.

Nicole Bardo-Colon can be reached at nbardo-colon@sptimes.com or 727893-8779.