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The barefoot doctor

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[Courtesy of Stephen Leatherman ]
Stephen Leatherman, a.k.a “Dr. Beach,” on the job. And it is a tough job, with plenty of dangerous fallout: tarantula encounters, shark scares, sand busts. . . .

By JEFF KLINKENBERG

© St. Petersburg Times, published May 25, 2001


This serious scholar of hurricanes and beach erosion also turns his scientific focus, and limitless enthusiasm, to ranking the best of the beaches.

MIAMI -- Dr. Beach hates exploring on an empty stomach. So he stops at his favorite bakery and buys a fresh baguette. He tears off a chunk with his teeth while steering his convertible toward the Atlantic Ocean. Breeze blowing through his auburn hair, wet lips smacking, Dr. Beach knows how to live.

Oprah had him on TV once. She opined that he had one of the best jobs in the whole world. He sort of agreed, though he didn't tell her about the devilish sandspurs and the time he woke up in bed with a horrifically hairy -- ah, maybe later. Still, Oprah had most of it right.

His work requires loping through sand, slurping ice cream and wearing a bathing suit. Sometimes he has to snorkel and lie on a blanket. Yes, somebody has to rate the best beaches in America.

"Take your shoes off!" he roars during an inspection of a prime piece of Miami waterfront, Cape Florida State Recreation Area at Key Biscayne. "It's a sin to wear shoes on a nice beach. And you can quote me."

Dr. Beach's real name is Stephen Leatherman. The Miami resident leads Florida International University's hurricane studies program, is an international expert on beach erosion and has testified many times before Congress. He has written 15 books and hundreds of scientific articles.

Yet it is his annual beach list, which comes out Memorial Day weekend, that makes him famous. Unlike a lot of academics, who loathe publicity and deliberately act as dull as seaweed, Dr. Beach relishes the limelight and plays it for laughs.

Today, as on each Friday before Memorial Day when he announces his list, he will appear on a number of national television programs, from the Today Show to CNN, to read it. As cameras roll, he sits under an umbrella, bare feet caressing a fine beach. Mister Wizard, meet Jimmy Buffett.

Newspapers all over the world, including the St. Petersburg Times, publish his list. The anointed beach communities hail the good doctor's genius and mount public relations campaigns. Beach communities that are slighted by the doctor's flawed judgment fire off furious e-mails:

Hey! It says on our water tower: The World's Greatest Beach. You think that Brand X Beach is better than ours? Brand X Beach stinks! And so do you! What makes you an expert?

A beach buff is born

At Cape Florida, he scoops up a handful of nice beach.

"Soft to the touch. Am I right? Not coarse. Don't like coarse. Good color sand, too. Not too dark. What do you think?"

Stephen Leatherman was born to be Dr. Beach in Charlotte, N.C., in 1948. One morning, when he was seven, his father drove a truck into the yard and dumped about a ton of sand. Then his dad built a box around the sand.

"Biggest sandbox in the history of Charlotte," he declares.

His parents took to the mountains on holidays. Their boy got so carsick on the trip along the narrow, winding mountain roads that they offered to take him to the beach instead.

"My mother says when I saw the beach my eyes got wide like saucers. I was looking at the biggest sandbox on earth."

As a North Carolina State undergraduate, he studied beach erosion, conducting his research as the worst winter storms lashed Cape Hatteras. Typically, he'd make measurements as the tide surged over the island. Currents knocked him down, filling his waders with icy water. He relieved fear and loneliness by enlisting helpers.

"Here: Tie one end of this rope around your waist," he'd tell an assistant. "Tie the other end around the bumper of the truck."

Why?

"At least I'll be able to recover your body."

Another time he studied near the Mexican border. Exhausted after a hot day in the field, he fell asleep on a cot in a dilapidated wood shack. Thus began his longest night.

"Woke up. Something was crawling on me. Lifted the sheet, then put it down. Said to myself: "Maybe you're dreaming.' Lifted the sheet again. I wasn't dreaming."

Crouched on his chest, the tarantula looked ready to bite.

"I jumped one way, the tarantula jumped past my face. I drowned him in bug spray, but it only made him mad. Smacked him with a flyswatter, but nothing happened. My adrenaline was so pumped I ripped off the leg of a chair and started chasing him around the room. I punched a nice hole in the ceiling and in the wall and broke a lamp, but I got him. I also got the other two tarantulas in bed with me."

Usually, he did field work alone.

He earned his doctorate from the University of Virginia. He taught at Amherst and later at the University of Maryland. For a federal erosion project he visited every major beach in America, all 650 of them. He has 10,000 maps and many more slides.

He used them at Maryland in his popular college class "Coastal Environments: Or Beaches I Know And Love." More than 270 students enrolled every year. "They called me Dr. Beach because they couldn't remember my name, probably because they had been partying all night and could hardly lift their heads off their desks. I kind of liked being known as Dr. Beach."

In 1989 Leatherman was packing for a trip to China when the telephone rang. It was a reporter from the travel magazine Conde Nast Traveler, asking for a list of America's best beaches.

Without thinking too much, Leatherman reeled off the names of ten good beaches.

Months later, his phone rang again. It was somebody from the Sanibel Island Chamber of Commerce, ecstatic that their Florida beach had made the magazine's list.

"What list?" asked Leatherman.

The phone rang again.

It was a reporter asking why Daytona Beach had failed to make the list.

Leatherman thought fast.

"Uh, because you, uh, let cars drive on the beach," he said. "Because, ah, you have too many buildings right on the beach."

From that moment, Leatherman decided to take the list at least a little seriously -- if only because other people would.

"Americans love lists," he says. "We list everything: the best restaurants, the best hotels. Et cetera. We also love beaches. Know what? Seventy per cent of Americans go to the beach on vacation. More people go to Miami Beach than the Grand Canyon.

"I like the mountains, but mountains are a little dull. They never change. A beach is dynamic. No two days are alike. I guess you could say I am enthusiastic about beaches."

Lobster, yes; Gomorrah, no

At Cape Florida, Dr. Beach saunters toward the ocean.

"Take a look at that water! I like blue water -- what's there not to like? -- but I really, really love green water. Green doesn't happen by accident, you know. Your water has to be clear, it has to be shallow, the sunlight has to bounce off the sand on the bottom. The color blue is filtered out of the spectrum, leaving green. Did you know that?"

He strides into the surf.

"My feet are calibrated for temperature," he announces. "I'm guessing it's about 72 degrees. That's a little cool for this time of year. Last week it was 76."

He likes California beaches. But he doesn't rate them highly, even if the Beach Boys did. The surf is too big and the water too cold for his druthers.

Dr. Beach's list is part science, part prejudice. One could say the same about him. One moment he's giving chemical symbols for minerals that make up the sand. The next moment he's a small boy describing the snorkel trip when he encountered a sea horse.

He rates each beach on 50 categories. His beaches have to be user friendly. Generally that means warm, clear water suitable for swimming. It means wide expanses of soft sand and few rocks. He likes some development, but not a lot. Usually, if a community has built hotels or condos upon the dunes, he will give the beach a lower rating.

At the same time, he likes easy parking, rest rooms, lifeguards, nearby motels and decent snack bars. "What I like about Cape Florida," he says, "is the good food at the concession stand. Let's go see! Look, just as I thought. They sell lobster here. Yeah, yeah. Better than hot dogs."

He is no fan of beach restoration projects. Dredging can foul the water and deposit mud onto the beach. He also knows that dismissing such beaches is like spitting into a gale.

"In a perfect world, there would be no need for beach restoration because in a perfect world nobody would build on the beach. But we don't live in a perfect world. We build on the beach, and they get washed away. Development isn't going to disappear."

Some city beaches are better than others. Clearwater Beach sometimes makes his list. He faults the number of buildings, but he likes all that clean sand, and he enjoys standing on Big Pier 60 and watching the parade of humanity stroll by. "Best beach for boy and girl watching in America," he says.

He doesn't visit every beach each year. But he visits many, depending upon where his hurricane and erosion research carries him. When he visits any coastal area -- he was in Tampa recently for an oil spill conference -- he will make a trip to the beach.

Caladesi Island State Park, near Dunedin, is one of his favorite wilderness beaches. "You have to take a ferry. The old salt who runs the ferry can spin a good yarn. You almost always see dolphin on the way over. The beach has nice sand, good water, sea oats and great ice cream at the concession stand. I am biased toward ice cream."

He pays for his own cone -- he says he never allows a beach community to pay expenses -- and always goes incognito unless he drives his own car and somebody notices his vanity license plate: "Dr. Beach."

Florida's finest beaches, in his opinion, are in the Panhandle. Grayton Beach State Recreation Area, west of Panama City, boasts the best sand in America. "It's sugar sand. Millions of years ago quartz and other minerals washed down rivers from the Appalachians and were deposited here. And over the years the other minerals were leached out, leaving pure quartz sand, the most stable mineral on earth. Here's how to write it: Si02."

A few years ago he rated Grayton the best beach in the country. Then he retired it from his list, his custom so other beaches have a better chance.

What makes a bad beach?

Dirty water. Medical waste. Rip currents. Deep drop-offs. An oil spill. Crime. Naked bathers having sex. Yes, he has seen everything. Dr. Beach doesn't cotton to Sodom and Gomorrah beaches.

He likes birds, minnows, dolphins and just a little seaweed.

"I don't take points off for sharks -- they're a random event. You can't worry about them."

It's not all a day at the beach

The shark bumped his leg.

"Oh, my god!" he shouted.

Nobody heard. He was treading water 500 feet off the beach at Cape Hatteras. Oh, how his wife and two children would weep! And the irony of it: Dr. Beach, of all people, being carried off by a shark! At least Daytona Beach would be happy.

"I was afraid to reach down. I knew my leg would be gone."

He reached for the bloody stump and touched what felt like a coconut.

The coconut turned out to be the head of an enormous loggerhead turtle. Sea turtles aren't known for savoring human flesh, but Dr. Beach remembers swimming a strong freestyle to shore.

Sometimes, when he tires of hearing what a wonderful job he has, Dr. Beach likes to recount another Texas field trip, the one where he filled a dozen bags with sand samples and put them in his car trunk, and hit the gas and sped toward Corpus Christi at 100 mph, and suddenly heard a siren and saw lights flashing.

He wasn't pulled over for speeding. The Border Patrol wondered why the rear end of his vehicle was so low to the ground. Was he smuggling illegal aliens?

He tried to answer.

"Shut up!"

He popped the trunk for the officer.

The lawman's eyes bulged as he saw bags filled with white powdery stuff. Here was the cocaine arrest of all time.

The Border Patrol called the sheriff, who called the narcotics agents, who alerted the media. Everyone came for the big bust.

Stephen Leatherman lay sweating on his belly on the hot pavement.

An agent slit open the first bag and tasted . . . something gritty that all beach combers sooner or later discover on their hot dogs.

"They were very disappointed with me," Dr. Beach says. "They thought they had caught the Big Kahuna, but all they got was the sand man."

For more information, look at Dr. Beach's Internet site at www.topbeaches.com

Bingo! The list for 2001

Here is the 2001 list of the best beaches in the United States, according to Florida International University's Stephen P. Leatherman, also known as "Dr. Beach."

To make the list, Leatherman uses 50 criteria organized in three broad categories: physical factors such as sand softness, wave size and current strength; biological factors such as water color and quality, and the presence of pests; and human-use factors, such as lifeguard protection, visual obstructions and amenities.

map

1. Poipu Beach Park, Hawaii

2. St. Joseph Peninsula State Park, near Panama City, Florida

3. Kaanapali, Hawaii

4. Hanalei Beach, Hawaii

5. Caladesi Island State Park, Dunedin

6. Fort DeSoto Park, Tierra Verde

7. Hamoa Beach, Hawaii

8. Ocracoke Island, North Carolina

9. Bill Baggs Cape Florida State Recreation Area, Key Biscayne

10. East Hampton Beach, New York

11. Westhampton Beach, New York

12. Makena State Park, Hawaii

13. Siesta Beach, Sarasota

14. Coast Guard Beach, Massachusetts

15. Hanauma Bay, Hawaii

16. St. George Island State Park, near Apalachicola

17. Perdido Key, Florida/Alabama

18. Cape Hatteras, North Carolina

19. Carpinteria City Beach, California

20. Long Beach Island, New Jersey

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