Phil Mauer is good at a few things, one of them being fantasy football. Three years ago, he won for a third time and took in a particularly good haul with Travis Kelce as his tight end and Kyler Murray as his quarterback.
Musing on how he should spend his windfall — he wanted a small extravagance, a treat — his thoughts turned to summer and this piece of simple engineering genius he and his wife Emily, who are from Philadelphia, spotted one day on their favorite beach in Ocean City.
It was a large, beach-shade device called the Shibumi, unmistakable among its peers with its near-perfect shadow and the dramatic way that it flies in the ocean breeze, the likes of which they’d never before seen, and the very likes of which the town of Ocean City is contemplating banning, just as other beach towns along the upper Atlantic have done. The primary issue is visual pollution and space.
In the measured, researched opinion of Emily Mauer, who with her two children and husband has frequented beaches in New Jersey, Delaware, and Maryland, “that would just be crazy,” as she glanced at her husband, who matched her expression of incredulity and insult.
Bethany Beach, Delaware, a short distance to the north, has banned all shade contraptions that could be defined as tents, canopies, tarps and cabanas. The town allows only umbrellas and baby tents no larger than 3 feet high and without ropes or stakes that “extend beyond the perimeter of the device.” Bethany Beach has also banned alcohol, as well as “ball playing, tossing objects, kites,” and digging holes in the sand, essentially declaring open war on fun. That is perhaps a story for another day.
Rehoboth Beach has similar rules. Nearby Dewey Beach has yet to follow in the path of its Delaware neighbors. That puts Ocean City in a pivotal position. If it falls, there will be very little sand left for the thousands of visitors from the Baltimore-Washington metro area to set up a proper beach-day encampment.
Lauren Davis, assistant to Ocean City Mayor Richard Meehan, said a new ordinance has not even been discussed, but is on the list of topics when the City Council meets this fall. Apparently, the mayor has received emails voicing concern about tents and canopies, she said.
“There may or may not be anything that comes of it,” Davis said.
The hypothetical ban could be a boon to Big Umbrella and a blow to the Beach Shade Industrial Complex, not to mention the Mauers.
As for the favoritism given to umbrellas, Phil has this to say: “I’ve seen umbrellas damn near stab people when they come loose.”
The umbrella-as-deadly-projectile argument was a common one among the canopy/tarp/tent set.
The Mauers’ beloved Shibumi, earned by Phil’s NFL acumen and Murray’s 3,971 passing yards and 819 rushing yards in 2020, stood alone in the sea of ordinary umbrellas and run-of-the-mill tarps on a recent sunny Saturday on a stretch of beach near 94th Street in Ocean City. For one thing, it filled and danced with the wind, acting like a wing or a sail or a flag.
“It’s noisier than a tarp,” Phil said, “but that flapping sound goes with the sound of the waves, and the sound of the wind.”
Shaped like a rainbow, it made a statement: Here is the kind of shade befitting a fantasy football champion. For all its virtues — it also casts a very efficient shadow when compared to a conventional tarp — a Shibumi is not cheap. The full-size model retails for $270, probably a reason the Mauers were the only ones within sight flying one.
Shibumi, Neso, and the especially popular CoolCabanas are among just a few of the brands created in the great Beach Shade Rush of the 2020s. Set loose upon the shade problem, capitalism obliged with the Qipi, the Sun Ninja, Sport-Brella, Yengiam, Osoeri, Solbello, WhiteFang, Sunsail Cabana, Umardoo, Commouds, and ... we could keep going. They are mostly variations of the same concept: thin fabric, rigid poles for support, secured by bags you fill with sand. Most are less than $200 — still a splurge when compared to umbrellas.
Three families from Arlington, Virginia, consisting of six adults and five children — they preferred not to share their names — all gathered under and around one 64-square-foot CoolCabana upwind from the Mauers. They took turns rotating into full shade, partial shade, and full sun. The littlest members of the group stayed closest to cover. Huddled under one CoolCabana, the families were like a van pool, undermining the argument that canopies take up too much valuable space on the sand.
Perhaps the City Council will include exemptions for families of four or more, setting aside a piece of choice sand for their unfettered use, much like a carpool lane on the expressway. Singles and couples could be singled out and forced to endure the indignity of an umbrella. They are the real enemy, and Amber Duckett seems to know it. She and her husband set up a Neso Gigante, an 11-foot tarp made with Lycra.
“I get it honestly,” said a cheerful and contrite Duckett, from Frederick, of the sentiment behind the proposed ban. “While we were putting this up, I thought, ‘Oh my God, you could fit three families under here, and it’s just the two of us. This is embarrassing.’”
Traditional umbrellas still prevail (the only type available for rent on the beach), making up most of the shade on the beachfront at Ocean City. If they are the single-family homes of the beachscape, the tents and canopies are the duplexes, fourplexes and apartment houses changing the look and feel of the neighborhood. But on a hot, sunny August weekend in Ocean City, all seemed to coexist peacefully and in harmony.
“Everyone should make their own choice of what to bring,” said Seema Vanodia. She was among a group of 50 friends and relatives from Howard County who have made an almost 40-year tradition of gathering in Ocean City once a summer. While none in their group seemed to begrudge tarps, they all chose to use umbrellas, 12 in total, doing their part to keep the Tommy Bahama brand in the pink. (It’s the brand stocked by Costco around the country, and with a width of 8 feet, they are not exactly tiny.)
The early wave of their group arrived at dawn and set up close to the water’s edge. They brought coolers and chairs and arranged their umbrellas to cast overlapping shadows in the sand. You couldn’t pay them to use a Neso or a CoolCabana. Too much work.
As far as Vanodia and her friends are concerned, there is plenty of room for everyone on the sand.
From the inlet to the Delaware border, Ocean City has about 9 miles of sand, most of it about 250 feet wide from shore to dune — roughly 300 acres of beach for the public to enjoy. The generous depth of the beach is thanks to a replenishment program in place since 1990. Every four years, sand is dredged and added to the beach to compensate for erosion and storm damage.
The beach patrol at Ocean City already enforces an ordinance prohibiting any shade device from obstructing the view of lifeguards, particularly the area between towers. Lifeguards communicate with flag and hand signals and need to have clear lines of sight between them. They move their perches according to the tide, remaining close to where the waves break — not an ideal spot to plant an umbrella or a tarp.
Midway between the shore and the city’s famed boardwalk, the Sejour, Sorto, and Sanchez families from Baltimore formed a small encampment, circling several small tents around a central umbrella. Under the rules enforced at the Delaware beaches, they’d have to pack it up and move along.
“It’s mainly for the kids,” said Daniel Sejour. “This makes it safer for them. It allows us to stay longer. We’ve been here all day. It’s nice not to have the sun beating down on you all day. With just an umbrella, we might be here for only a few hours.”
“Umbrellas don’t give you quite enough shade,” said Meleena Sorto. “This gives us a little more privacy too.”
Dr. Sandra Sanchez, who is doing her residency in pathology at Johns Hopkins, hopes the debate over shade devices will not lose sight of the primary point of creating shade at the beach. She has seen enough melanoma and carcinoma firsthand to ever advocate for an ordinance that results in less shade.
“I just saw a patient the other day,” she said, holding her child. “He lost his entire toe.”