SEA ISLE CITY, N.J. — On Day One, an amiable family from Quebec settled onto their favorite Jersey beach and promptly turned into tomatoes.
They looked around: Tents, canopies, cabanas. Major beach spreading.
Clearly, they were doing it wrong.
That night, they purchased a $60 10-by-10 canopy from a store in nearby Stone Harbor, which Dad kept calling Pearl Harbor, and on Day Two, the St. Pierre fam claimed a major piece of shaded real estate around 45th Street, complete with a place to hang their music speaker, towels, and hats. An entire room of shade.
Nearby, they lined up their crocs and flip-flops on a bed of sand as if it were the floor of a closet. Or perhaps a boundary.
"We are," declared Eric St. Pierre triumphantly, "New Jersey people."
He's a quick study. When in Jersey, do like Jersey, which on the crowded beaches of Sea Isle City on this low-rent No Beach Tag Wednesday, meant an epidemic of beach-spreading: A phenomenon not unlike one observed in another crowded environment. On the New York City subway, humans, particularly men, are known to take two and three times the space they really need. That became known as manspreading.
Or maybe it's a cousin of glamping, the trend toward bringing all the comforts of home to the wilderness.
(The related Jersey phenomenon of a governor taking up an entire beach closed to the public falls under a special Christie-spreading category.)
But that same impulse to jockey for position, grab as much space as possible, make sure conditions are optimal, not just natural, and perhaps to put enough buffer between yourself and those other people doing exactly what you're doing as to minimize any incidental contact, was on full display during this overheated afternoon in Sea Isle, on a stretch of beach dotted with 6-by-6 portable cabanas, 10-by-10 canopies, half-moon baby tents, folding end tables, wading pools, rafts the size of a twin bed, and other elements of these elaborate compounds.
"It's ridiculous," said a Sea Isle lifeguard riding around on his ATV (to be honest, lifeguards have upgraded their gear, too). "It's like tent city."
Doesn't anyone remember sand pillows? Push the sand into a pile under the towel for your head. Nap.
Let's just say, Sea Isle is not a bucket-and-a-towel town. More like pile the stuff into the back of a pickup truck for the day and load it into the special wagon with all-terrain wheels.
Not that there's anything wrong with it. Survival of the coolest in the evolution of shade. Just don't get stuck behind one of these compounds in your low-profile chair bought on sidewalk special from Dalrymple's.
Once you go tent, it seems you never go back. Some beachgoers furnish their spaces with tables and portable fans, or hang a banner that forms a wall. Good way to keep the kids shaded and corralled, the food and beer cool, the group vibe intact. One family had 28 cheesesteaks delivered to their tent in Sea Isle that Wednesday evening.
Brooks Patterson, 38, of Easton, was sent out to the beach on an early reconnaissance mission to seek out space and erect the family compound, in his case a 10-by-10, green-and-silver Coleman instant Sun Shelter. Hey no biggie, he's in the Army. "It puts me at ease," he said, keeping everyone UV-protected. The old days of "two little chairs and that's it – I wish I could be that way."
Nearby, meanwhile, Jake Dyer, 36, of Harrisburg, a self-described "canopy connoisseur," is so attached to his expansive 12-by-12 beach shade that when the tent began to buckle, he ordered an elaborate, domed one priced at $120 that was delivered via Amazon to the beach house (coming someday soon, by drone, right to the ocean's edge). But the old one has held on. He noted that the 12-by-12 provides far more coverage than two 6-by-6s.
"We take our canopies seriously," said Marcia Albright, his mother-in-law.
You might say the Occupy Sea Isle-style canopied beach is pretty much an echo of the buildup of Shore towns themselves, where duplexes, McMansions, and newly raised homes have transformed the old bungalow landscape, blocking views and breezes.
Kim Avenatti watched as her husband, Matt, a state trooper, worked to fix their buckling $90 Ozark Trail canopy, rigging it to the sand by tying it to their beach cart. Under the shade-maker were tables, including one fashioned from an umbrella stand with cup holders. She said she wasn't worried about blocking anyone's view behind her. "We don't really care," she said. "You can still see through here."
Over at the St. Pierre tent, Eric's mom, Francine Viel, 69, also sunburned, had deliberately set herself down outside the family canopy and under her umbrella, brought from Canada, a sort-of mother-in-law suite on the sand. ("We [sun]burned the kids, so she doesn't speak to us," St. Pierre noted.)
She took out her watercolors and painted the canopy as part of her beach landscape. In her artistic vision, the canopy looks as if it could swallow the ocean.
Meanwhile, the fanciest-looking real estate belonged to Harry Treager with his 6-by-6 Go Cabana contraption, constructed more like an elaborate umbrella, with legs that feature pockets for sand to weigh it down. Nearby he had a half-moon umbrella tent with flaps usually for the baby.
He said he likes to keep access to his imported shade exclusive.
"It keeps the unwanted people away," he said, referring to everyone other than himself, his wife, Peggy, and of course Uncle John, if he ever decides to come out to the beach, because the family beach house belongs to him.
And while his handsome cabana with its stylish ventilated roof attracted some attention (and perhaps envy) from the likes of Jake the Canopy Connoisseur, sitting nearby under his last-legs 12-by-12 portable roof, Tregear was happy to boast about his situation.
"There's no self-consciousness on the beach," he said.
Least of all in Jersey.
About this Series:
Shore is about everyday people and their meaningful times spent down the Shore. Find each installment — and be sure to leave a comment — at Philly.com/Shore.