Water wings clipped at some town beaches

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Luci Wogan and Dylan Tingle spend a beach day at Ellacoya State Beach on Thursday.  (Karen Bobotas/for the Laconia Daily Sun)

By ADAM DRAPCHO, LACONIA DAILY SUN

It's a hot summer day, too uncomfortable for the kids to play outside and they're too bored to stay in, so you plan to spend a few hours at your local beach. You might have to leave your favorite beach toys at home, though, because many town beaches around Lake Winnipesaukee forbid the use of inflated or other flotation aids for young swimmers.

"We allow absolutely no flotational devices whatsoever," said Amy Lovisek, assistant recreation and facilities director in Laconia, citing rule #1 of the city's Parks and Recreation Rules and Recreation: "Inflatables, life jackets, swim fins, snorkels and tubes are not permitted in the water."

The rationale behind the rule is somewhat counter-intuitive: Lovisek, and many other parks officials around the lake, believe that allowing children to swim with flotation aids increases, rather than decreases, the likelihood of an emergency. The reasoning is two-fold. Firstly, inflated devices, such as water wings or tubes, can deflate, leaving a poor swimmer suddenly in need of help. Secondly, the use of such devices is associated with unsafe behavior, both from the swimmer as well as the parent or guardian watching.

Lovisek said the rule has been in place for more than 20 years, yet she still fields many complaints each summer.

One such complaint came from Stephanie Chandler of Laconia, who was unhappy to be told by an attendant at Bond Beach that the water wings and life jackets she brought would not be allowed because they provided a sense of "false security."

"Excuse me," Chandler said, "they use the life jackets and water wings to increase their security and safety in the water, no false security. We all purchase floating devices to enjoy on the lakes, only to be told we cannot use them at the beaches ... It is all part of summer and why we live in New Hampshire."

Sandy Barbeau, of Massachusetts, visiting Weirs Beach on Thursday, said, "I was kind of surprised that flotation devices aren't allowed at the beaches around here. There aren't any big waves, and there are plenty of lifeguards and buoys to keep people from going too far. I think that as long as kids aren't rough-housing or anything, then I think that they should be allowed."

Though the policy is controversial among beach-goers, most towns in the Lakes Region have their own prohibition against swimming aids at town beaches.

"We were later to that policy than others," said Donna Kuethe, director of Moultonborough Parks and Recreation Department. Moultonborough now has a restriction against most devices, allowing only U.S. Coast Guard certified life jackets and foam swim noodles. "We don't allow anything that's inflatable," she said.

Center Harbor doesn't allow any flotation devices whatsoever, said Recreation Director Sandy Frost. If a child is wearing a swim aid, she said parents are more likely to pay less attention, believing the child to be safe.

"Basically, it gives people a false sense of security," Frost said. "What we want is for parents to be with children in the water, swimming with them and making sure they're OK."

Wolfeboro does allow flotation devices at Carry or Albee beaches, said Christine Collins, recreation director, because the swim areas at those beaches are so shallow that drowning is unlikely. At Brewster Beach, where the water is deeper, swim aids aren't allowed.

In Alton, devices or toys must be approved by a lifeguard, and "water wings" are not going to be allowed, said director Kellie Troendle. The lifeguard may have Coast Guard-approved life jackets for young children than need them, she added.

Coast Guard-approved life jackets are also available for young children in the life-guarded section of the Gilford Town Beach, according to director Herb Greene. No other devices will be allowed in the guarded section; however, there's no such prohibition for the rest of the town beach.

"In the unguarded area, they are allowed to use flotation devices at their own risk," said Greene.

"People get very frustrated when you tell them that they aren't allowed to use flotation devices at the beach and often ask why it isn't allowed. The reason we state is that it can be a safety issue, where kids can get stuck in tubes and such, and it gives parents a reason not to watch their kids. Lifeguards are here to keep things safe, but they aren't here to babysit the kids," said Matt Swormstedt, an attendant at Weirs Beach.

"Everyone seems to think that we're their enemy, but (the rule) has been in place forever," said Lovisek.

And for those who insist on using swim toys and aids of their liking, Ellacoya State Park in Gilford has no such restrictions.

Danielle Miller, of Concord, was accompanying a group of children at the Ellacoya beach on Thursday.

"I really like that you are able to use flotation devices because not everyone has the same swimming ability, so its nice for kids to have something to hold on to. Plus, sometimes for adults its nice to go out in the lake and just be able to float," Miller said.

Shannon Farr, also of Concord, said that she seeks out beaches like Ellacoya, where water wings are welcome.

"My kids love having tubes, so we prefer to go places that allow it. Tubes and rafts are OK. I mean, you still have to watch your kids, but its nice for kids who are less comfortable in the water, because it helps them ease in and float. It seems strange to me that other beaches don't allow life vests or arm floaties, because they help ensure safety. That just seems silly not to allow them at least at local beaches."

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Dina and Jack Fournier of Worcester, MA enjoying a beach day at Weirs Beach on Thursday.  (Karen Bobotas/for the Laconia Daily Sun)