It didn’t take long for Tom and Rena Bester to fall for the sandbar life.
“We got the boat just to come to the sandbar – we came once and we were hooked,” Rena said. She and her husband, along with their son and a couple of family friends, were among the early crowd starting to form at the sandbar on Lake Winnisquam, located near the Route 3 bridge, on Thursday morning.
The Besters live in Nashua, and this is their second summer coming up to hang out at the sand bar. The geographic feature, which occurs in various lakes and rivers around the state, offers a unique way to experience the water. Surrounded by deeper water on all sides, a sandbar is a broad stretch of sand that rises to, or almost to, the surface of the water.
Over the past decade or so, sandbars in the Lakes Region have become an attraction for boaters who see them as a place to relax and play, and on nice summer days, the sand bars can be filled with anchored boats and playful boaters. Tom Bester said he enjoys the atmosphere, which he describes as “A combination of Jersey Shore and MTV Spring Break – a lot of, ‘Woo! Woo!’”
Not everyone takes the same view of that activity, though.
At the Winnisquam sandbar on Thursday, about a dozen boats were anchored around the edge of the sandbar. Some people lounged on the boats, others waded into the water to fish, swim or to play catch with a football.
“It’s like a picnic in water,” said Mike Conley, from Boston, adding that they had food and drinks on the boat for when the kids got tired of splashing around in the lake.
Conley, who had his children with him on Thursday, said he had been coming to vacation on Winnisquam since he was a boy himself. That was the same case with Guido Rocchi, a Winchester, Massachusetts resident who was also at the sandbar on Thursday.
Rocchi said he had been coming to Winnisquam since 1972, when his parents, immigrants from Italy, purchased a lakeside home.
In those days, the sandbar was there, Rocchi said, but, “This is way different,” he said. “There were no parties here.” That started to change around 10 years ago, he said. On nice days, the sandbar starts to fill up in the afternoon, with boats playing loud music, and people in the mood to party.
On this year’s Fourth of July, Rocchi estimated, there were at least 1,000 partiers on the sandbar.
“A lot of people who live on the lake come in the morning and leave when the 20-year-olds in rental boats show up,” Rocchi said. His 11-year-old daughter, Gabi, wished her dad would loosen up a bit. “I love it," she said. "I wish we didn’t leave, but he makes me. I like watching the mayhem.”
A home on the lake
Patrick Venuti is the commander of the Lakes Region Sail and Power Squadron, an organization that provides education and promotes safety for boaters. He said it’s understandable that the sandbars have become destinations, especially for people who don’t have a lakeside property.
“Boaters, they come up for a day or a couple of days, and have nowhere to go except to anchor at the sandbar and hang out,” he said.
But, for those who do own a lakeside home, especially one that’s near a popular sandbar, the activity can be unwelcome, Venuti said.
“There’s a lot of noise,” he said. “I feel for both, there are two sides to the story.”
One Moultonborough couple was so upset by the activity in Braun Bay – where Lake Winnipesaukee’s busiest sandbar is found – that they filed a lawsuit against a floating restaurant that sets up there, alleging that the presence of the restaurant worsens an environment that spoils their ability to enjoy their property.
When people complain about activity at sandbars, it’s Marine Patrol who answers the call, said Captain Tim Dunleavy, who said that as more people flock to sandbars, more complaints have been filed.
“We will send a boat out to see if there are any violations,” Dunleavy said. “Often the complaint is the music, the volume of the music, or perhaps the lyrics of the music. We have competing stereos, we have complaints of indecent exposure, public urination, those things that go along with a party atmosphere.”
There are sandbars across the state, Dunleavy said, and he concurred with observations that sandbar partying has increased in recent years.
In some cases, the sandbar parties have gone from raucous to dangerous, he said, adding that he has concerns about the behavior he has seen: “Consumption of alcohol, loud music, general partying behavior that leads to sometimes domestic violence on boats, leads to fights between people on different boats.”
Dunleavy’s greatest concern, though, is the ability of first responders to get through the tangle of boats in the case of an emergency. When it’s busy at a sandbar, boats are anchored one after another, often with an anchor off both their stern and bow, to prevent them from swinging around and colliding with a neighbor.
In the last week of June, Dunleavy said, Marine Patrol assisted with emergency medical responders when a woman on a boat in Braun Bay was in need of help. Once they reached the sandbar, he said, “It took about 20 minutes to get to her because the boat she was on was in the center of all this activity… it makes for a very slow process for the boats to evacuate those areas.”
Whether sandbar parties are a draw or a nuisance, Dunleavy said they’re likely to remain as long as there’s increased boat traffic on the state’s waters.
“I will say that the calls and the activity are relative to the overall boating season,” he said. “This season is the busiest boating season that I have seen in my 32 years in Marine Patrol.”
Venuti, of the Sail and Power Squadron, appealed to people on each side of the issue to take a moment to consider the other.
“I just hope everyone respects the laws and has a good time on the water, respect the laws and other people’s rights and property,” Venuti said.