MARGATE — Beach cleaners don’t dwell on the natural beauty around them while driving the high-tech equipment that sweeps the sand clean.
It’s not that they don’t appreciate it. They just save that sense of wonder for their off time.
Instead, ensconced in his glass-plated cab, Jim Friel, of Northfield, spent a recent weekday listening to classic rock as he drove a computerized tractor equipped with a Barber Surf Rake across the beach.
Friel, 51, who grew up in Margate, and coworker Ed McClain, 55, a lifelong Margate resident, are two of the people who make the summer tourist season possible.
“It’s a repetitive job,” Friel said.
He slowly drove a pattern on the beach, up and down, around and around. He covers about half of Margate’s 1.6-mile beachfront every workday from 7 to 10 a.m. once the season starts in June.
And he can’t be gazing at the ocean. He’s always on the lookout for kids and dogs running into his path.
Friel has been sweeping the beaches for about 20 years as a Public Works employee, while McClain said he’s been doing it for 15. Both spend plenty of time fishing and enjoying the outdoors when they aren’t working.
“This thing drives itself. All you have to do is steer,” Friel said as he steered north from the area in front of Lucy the Elephant. “Just bumpy, but a lot like driving a car.”
The complex raking system digs a few inches into the sand and pulls up anything solid, such as shells and trash, and stashes it in a hopper.
But unless the spikes on the rake spear a cigarette butt, those obnoxious pieces of litter escape it, Friel said. They’re just too small. A beach and public park smoking ban has passed the Legislature and awaits the governor’s signature, but it can’t come fast enough for Friel.
On this day, Friel’s hopper was mostly filled with storm debris like marsh grass that had come in on the tide.
“Wait until you see what we pick up in another month or two,” he said of the high season for tourists.
Instead of natural material, there will be lots of drink bottles and cans, food wrappers and lots of plastics, he said. And sometimes there is money.
“It’s mostly recyclables,” said Public Works Director Frank Ricciotti. It’s delivered to be recycled after being picked up on the beach, he said.
Friel said the job is varied. In addition to beach cleaning, he trims the grass at the ball fields and pours concrete for sidewalks and curbs.
The recent Absecon Island beach replenishment means there’s a lot more beach to clean.
“They are probably about 70 percent bigger,” said Ricciotti of the depth from the street ends to the ocean.
So the city has ordered two more tractor and raking system combinations, at a cost of about $130,000 each. And it will hire new workers, Ricciotti said.
But some things never change, Friel and McClain said. Sometimes, beachgoers drive them crazy.
“People come down and watch and see what you are doing, then they set up on the sand just where you are going to make your next pass,” McClain said.
It happens all the time, they agreed.
Some of the crazier things they have found had to be hauled away by hand.
Like a sofa someone brought to the beach, no doubt for a party, Friel said.
There are good things, too.
“The look on kids’ faces when they see you for the first time — by the fourth pass they are waving to you,” McClain said. “That is gratifying.”