As a kid, David Smith used to run around and play under the Boardwalk at his favorite beach, around Wissahickon Avenue in Ventnor. Then when he grew up and got a job with his hometown public-works department, Smith remembers driving front-end loaders under the Boardwalk.
But these days, even the skinniest kid would find it hard to belly-crawl under those blocks of the boards, let alone run. And forget driving heavy machinery under the Boardwalk in the last six or eight blocks or so before the wooden walk hits a dead end at the Margate city line.
That same skinny kid could barely fit a bare foot between the piled-up sand and the almost-beach-level Board-walk, because so much sand has been blown in by the wind or pushed up by the ocean lately.
Smith can use a set of steps off the Boardwalk to the beach to show how much the area has changed. That's not a long trip. It takes just two steps - one of them mostly covered with sand - to reach the beach from the boards.
"I think there were 13 steps down here" when that stairway was built, as he remembers the number. And the handrails just disappear into sand a few feet after they start.
To Smith, now 63 and Ventnor's public-works director, all that sand being so close to the wood means that after the wind kicks up, he now has to send a crew out with leaf-blowers to clean sand off the boards. But sometimes, the workers have to start by shoveling the deepest stuff off before they can get down to where the blowers will work.
And to this veteran of decades on this beach - where he still likes to spend his summer weekends, too - this change in the relative height of the sand to the fixed height of the wooden deck points out an often-misunderstood fact of beach life:
We always hear about - and sometimes see dramatic pictures of - beaches being eroded and sand suddenly vanishing after big storms. But sometimes, storms don't take sand away as much as they push it around, redistributing it from one part of the beach to another.
Take the worst storm to hit South Jersey in 50 years, 2012's infamous Hurricane Sandy. Smith says a lot of the sand that's crowding the Downbeach end of his Boardwalk now got pushed up there in that hurricane. And if that sounds unlikely to you - a brutal hurricane actually adding sand to a beach - just remember how much sand that storm pushed onto the streets and even into the homes of many local towns.
Say what you will about Sandy, but that storm was very accurately named.
The Coastal Research Center at Richard Stockton College of New Jersey has been monitoring the comings and goings and growings and shrinkings of New Jersey's beaches for 25-plus years. Steve Howard, a senior geospatial analyst at the center, said this week about 98 percent of the 105 sites the center measures in New Jersey lost sand from their beaches in Hurricane Sandy.
But one of the handful of places to gain sand in that storm was Margate, which starts maybe a third of a mile to the Downbeach side of the most sand-socked section of Ventnor's Boardwalk. On the whole in Sandy, Ventnor had a "minor (sand) loss relative to the rest of the state," Howard said.
He lives in Brigantine, but he knows Ventnor's beach well from the monitoring project. He sees a similar effect happening in his town, where "a lot of the finer sand is being carried up onto the north end" of Brigantine, and a walkway on the seawall there.
Ventnor's Historical Society has a collection of newspaper clippings with pictures that show the beach at a variety of heights over the years. They include a shot from The Press in 2009, when a city public-works crew was putting a new deck on the Boardwalk at Wissahickon Avenue - a Boardwalk that had at least several feet of open air under it.
"It changes with the seasons," says Ruth Advena, a Historical Society trustee, who also grew up in Ventnor - playing under the boards. "You walk in the winter and you can usually see (a boulder) at Pittsburgh Avenue - it is completely uncovered. And I don't know what happens, but by summertime, that's just a little stone in the sand."
She agrees that history - and many history fans - tend to pay most of their attention to the worst storms, including 1962's northeaster, which has its own display in the museum across the hall from Ventnor's Atlantic County Library branch.
"But they don't know about the storms that bring the sand back in," Advena adds. In her own personal history, "I can remember as a kid, even when I was a teenager, if you didn't want to lose something on the beach, you would put it up in the rafters ... of the Boardwalk. So that just shows how much space was under there."
Smith says some of the current crop of sand surrounding the boards probably started out in the latest beach-replenishment project to come through Ventnor and Atlantic City - which finished shortly before last Christmas. To him, that dredge-fed sand is much fluffier than the town's typical sand, so it blows around much more easily.
"This sand is so light, it's like powder - like flour," Smith says.
But just to show that nature can give and take sand almost indiscriminately, he walks away from the crowded Boardwalk down to near the waterline - where that multi-day rainstorm of last week cut out a sharp, cliff-like dropoff in the recently replenished beach. One of his workers was driving a tractor and pulling a Surf Rake behind, partly to clean the beach for a fast-approaching summer and partly to smooth out that cliff for all the crowds about to hit the town.
"When you got here, it just went straight down," Smith said, standing by the now-more-gentle slope down to the ocean.
And to him, the best thing that could happen to Ventnor's Boardwalk is another beach-building job, one that he expects to add dunes on its ocean side to protect it from future storms.
"It's a maintenance nightmare now," Smith says. "But once the dunes come back, that will cut down on the problem a lot."
In the meantime, he plans to send his workers out in the coming weeks to try to dig some of the highest sand away from the boards. That used to be more of a priority in the days when Boardwalk lumber was soft, southern pine, which would rot quickly if it got wet and didn't have air underneath to let it dry.
But when the city rebuilt the Boardwalk over several winters in the last decade, the new deck was tropical hardwood. Smith believes that lumber can handle moisture better, but says "with the new wood, we really can't tell yet."
So he's hoping those dunes will come along and help keep sand out from under the Boardwalk - by keeping that giant pile of sand in front of the Boardwalk, and adding a snow fence to catch freshly blowing sand.
And then it's time for him to get back in his SUV to head off to deal with his next problem. Two steps up - one covered with sand - and he's off the beach and on the boards, ready to go.
Contact Martin DeAngelis: