The ocean is a dangerous place.

Even a small wave can throw you to the sand with enough force to break bones ... or worse. A big wave breaking in shallow water can throw you to the beach with enough power to crush two cervical vertebrae. That's what happened to surfer Chad de Satnick in Cape May in 2001.

De Satnick is lucky. He can still walk (and surf). Others have been paralyzed for life in the exact same kind of accident. Yes, the ocean is a dangerous place.

But what can man (or municipal officials) do about that? It's a recurring question up and down the southern New Jersey coast, which, of course, lives on the tourists who are drawn by that ocean.

De Satnick says the answer is ... more.

He recently convinced the city of Cape May to print 250,000 brochures warning tourists that they could break their necks or their backs in the waves. And he is fighting for engineering changes in Cape May's beaches. He says a 1990 beach-replenishment project left the city's beaches with a steep drop-off that causes big waves to break in shallow water.

In fact, the number of spinal-cord injuries on the city's beaches has risen sharply since the '90s, according to the Cape May Fire Department.

But that may be due to better reporting procedures, according to the fire chief. Nor does the department know how many of those initial calls resulted in serious injuries.

Although the Army Corps of Engineers tries not to change the natural slope of a beach when it does a replenishment project, it can happen. But the tides and wind can change a beach's slope, too - and change it right back the next day.

Surgery and years of therapy have provided de Satnick with full use of his limbs, but he has become an advocate for those with spinal-cord injuries, working with the organization Life Rolls On, a division of the Christopher and Dana Reeve Foundation. He deserves praise for that and for his work to warn tourists of the ocean's dangers.

But again, how much can the city do? De Satnick's accident happened in hurricane surf. Surfers love the big waves a storm brings - but they know it is dangerous.

Perhaps shore tourists would be well-served by a statewide, standardized flag system that warns bathers of the ocean's dangers. As it is now, some beach towns use a flag system, some don't.

But we have to end where we began. The ocean is a dangerous place. And there is not much man or municipal officials can do to make it less dangerous. The best advice: Know your limits, be careful out there, and never, ever underestimate the power of the ocean.