Changes coming to Silver Sands sandbar
MILFORD >> Improved signage and more consistent lifeguard coverage near the popular sandbar from the shore to Charles Island are the focus of changes at Silver Sands State Park.
The move came out of a meeting after a drowning July 21, state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection spokesman Dennis Schain said.
State Rep. Kim Rose, D-Milford, whose 118th District includes the popular state park, initiated the meeting with DEEP, city leaders and first-responders after George Swaby, 28, of Bridgeport died.
There are no details yet on what the signs changes will be, or what other measures might be put into place, but Schain indicated they would be in place for next year.
Rose wrote a letter to DEEP Commissioner Rob Klee seeking the meeting.
“Unfortunately, this seems to be a tragic or near-tragic story we hear of all way too often.
“The 2,500-foot-long sandbar has been notorious for putting lives at risk, and it’s unusual for a summer to go by without at least several emergencies,” she wrote.
DEEP responded quickly to the call for solutions, Rose said.
They discussed several approaches to minimizing the danger, including:
• Stronger signage, to possibly include the number of deaths that have occurred.
• Signs in Spanish as well as English.
• Posting an aerial view of the sandbar, or tombolo, and island and telling clearly when it’s OK to walk.
• Putting netting and floaters in the area, although this would complicate boating.
Rose said banning the walk is not on the table and would be nearly impossible to enforce.
About a quarter million people visit Silver Sands each season and the walk to the island at low tide is popular.
Charles Island is closed to the public from May through Sept. 9 to prevent disturbances to nesting birds, DEEP has said.
Rose said another issue is lifeguard staffing.
The rule is there must be three lifeguards on per shift and DEEP couldn’t find enough lifeguards to work on many occasions, she said.
Mayor Ben Blake offered for the city to help recruit lifeguards and the Fire Department offered to help with training, she said.
Schain called the conversation “positive and productive.”
It was “thought the presence of guards would help reduce the number of incidents at the sandbar even though it is outside the designated swim area and not the main focus of attention for guards when they are on duty,” Schain said.
DEEP officials maintained earlier that lifeguards weren’t a factor because the area is a no-swim zone.
Swaby was hit by a wave and sucked into a current while walking out to the island as the tide receded.
The strip that is usually cleared of water at low tide, allowing walkers to reach the island. It is commonly referred to as a sandbar, but is technically a tombolo because it connects land to the island.
Rose said most of the people harmed or rescued in the walk are not from Milford and that, generally, city residents are aware of the dangers.
Before Swaby’s drowning, the last fatality as a result of the walk was in 2011.
But there are many rescue and distress calls from Silver Sands State Park each year. Since June 15, there have been seven 911 dispatch calls for open-water rescues, according to data obtained by Rose from local police.
There are five warning signs from DEEP at Silver Sands State Park where the Charles Island tombolo begins at the shore.
The signs say “Danger” in big letters, and “Sandbar floods twice daily with strong currents and undertow.”
The signs also say, “Do not hike on water covered sandbar.”
But the signs don’t convey that lunar cycles change the depths of the water by 6 to 7 feet or that the water, once it returns for the high tide cycle, can come in quickly. That, combined with the undertow, can challenge even the strongest swimmers, officials have said.
DEEP officers have been patrolling the sandbar in a vehicle, advising walkers not to go beyond a certain point and telling them to consider they have a half-hour rather than an hour to make it out to the island and back before the tide comes in.
Schain has said people need to use “common sense, good judgment” and “know your strengths and limitations.”
The trouble arises when people wait too long and come back from the island when water is rising, according to the experts, or who start out to the island before the tide has receded.
Police spokesman Mike DeVito said recently the sandbar to Charles Island has tricky natural elements. “Panic” can set in for those who don’t expect it and panic causes “a host of reactions in the body that decrease the likelihood of survival.”
DeVito has said anyone taking the trip should be a strong swimmer, as opposed to just being able to swim. Officials have said Swaby was a novice swimmer.
Schain has said “unfortunately” some people are drawn to natural attractions when there’s risk, which DEEP sees that at some other locations, including Enders Falls in Granby and Squantz Pond in New Fairfield.