For the first time in recent memory Magens Bay Park on St. Thomas was closed Monday due to dangerous ocean swells and waves reaching as high as 25 feet by some estimates.
“I got here at six o’clock this morning,” said James Nibbs, assistant park manager. “We had to close.”
Nibbs said conditions were too dangerous and debris was everywhere.
“We’ve already hauled five truckloads out of here today,” he said.
At 4:30 p.m. police were still turning people away who had, despite the makeshift barrier 100 feet before the park entrance and the sign in the middle of the roadway that said “Do Not Enter,” tried to get into the park in automobiles. Even those on foot were being sent away.
Sand more than a half a foot deep covered what years ago was the beach access road on the western side of the park entrance. Since the new road was built much farther away from the ocean several years back, the former asphalt road had acquired a dusting of sand and was mostly used by walkers and runners getting their exercise for the day on the safety of the old road.
But what was covering it Monday afternoon was more akin to bottomless quick sand.
Surprisingly, the trees planted along the beach mere months ago to replace foliage devastated by Hurricanes Irma and Maria were mostly upright Monday afternoon despite the pummeling they had taken over the previous 24 hours.
Nibbs said the newly planted vegetation didn’t have what it took to hold back the sand and water as the original trees, which had clung on doggedly during Hurricanes Hugo and Marilyn, 28 and 20 years ago, respectively.
Water had pooled next to the new road, which is separated from the ocean by hundreds of yards of formerly dry ground that is home to recreational sheds and parking areas. Recently painted brown, re-purposed cut up six-foot long utility poles had been numbered and neatly lined up along the former access road to designate parking spots and prevent vehicles access. Monday they had been tossed or perhaps rolled by the sheer force of the water into a random pattern that would serve more to block vehicles from parking than order them.
According to Nibbs, despite the wave action that had begun the day before, Magens was open on Sunday. Children and adults were using the gradually building waves to body surf and try some boogie boarding.
The waves began building dramatically on the Atlantic side of St. Thomas, however, by mid afternoon Sunday. Hull Bay beach, the next bay to the west of Magens, turned into a huge traffic jam as residents, surfers, paddle boarders and the idle curious made their way down the narrow road to take in the action.
Given the rare enormous and building wave action, one would have expected to see a dotting of surfers and paddle boarders far out on the usual surf break spots. But even the most brave or crazy were mostly found on the beach shaking their heads.
A few non-locals who had braved the massive swells, stood dripping wet and expressing gratitude they had made it back into shore.
Rip currents that could pull the strongest of swimmers out the sea were almost visible from the hillsides.
Few people remember the waves being this big for this long, according to long term resident and surfer Walter Bostwick.
“People are saying not since 1991, the year of the perfect storm [the nor’easter about which a book was written and then a movie made] has anyone seen it like this,” he said.
By Monday afternoon the wave action had removed sand from Hull Bay beach, leaving large sand colored rocks bearing an eerie resemblance to long hidden graves exposed.
The extraordinary wave action is expected to continue until next weekend, with waves diminishing slightly as the week goes on.
The dramatic swells are the result of a nor’easter being called the second one-in-a hundred-year event to hit the Massachusetts area in the last year. Jeff Masters, the founder of Weather Underground and well-respected weather expert, wrote last week of the north eastern event, saying, “The combined effect of the storm surge and the unusually high astronomical tide is predicted to bring a water level among the top-three highest ever measured, about 4.5 feet above MHHW [the meteorological abbreviation for “mean higher high water.”] Thus, this weekend’s storm surge may well give Boston a second 1-in-100-year coastal flooding event, something one would expect to see randomly only once every 10,000 years!”