The thrill-seeking pleasures of boogie boarding and wave-riding generally aren’t associated with Shelter Island, a place where the unofficial motto is “Live Slow.” But for recreational swimmers, the island’s bay beaches, protected from direct wave action, couldn’t be better.
A character in one of Mary Gordon’s stories said you never regret the birth of a child, or a swim in the ocean. The beaches and landings described here offer a rich array of possibilities — beautiful stretches of water where a strong swimmer can exercise without lifeguards, lane ropes, or regrets.
Open-water swimming on Shelter Island is not for the timid. Sometimes the water is cold and swimmers have to be alert for warnings about unsafe conditions and water quality. Jellyfish are common, especially in late summer, and it’s always a good idea to swim with a buddy.
Parking a car at most Shelter Island beaches — namely Crescent, Wades, Hay, Shell, and Fresh Pond — requires a town parking permit or visitor parking permit from Memorial Day through Labor Day. Getting one of these requires a trip to the town clerk’s office during business hours (Monday through Friday from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. and Saturdays, mid-June through August, from 9 a.m. to noon.) Up to 10 day permits are available daily for Wades and Shell beaches for $20 each.
Shelter Island beaches range from rocky to coarse sand with pebbles. Unless you can arrange to parachute in, plan to wear water shoes.
Sunset, Crescent, or Louis’ Beach
When people refer to Sunset, Crescent, or Louis’ Beach, they are talking about the same place, the best-known stretch of sand on the island. A half-mile long, it spreads out like Ipanema along Rocky Shore Road with lifeguards, bathrooms and places to buy food and drink. What you call it says more about you than the beach. If you are old enough to have met the legendary Jack Wroble, who taught at least three generations of island children to swim here, you call it Louis’ Beach. Younger islanders call it Crescent.
On a Sunday in July, Jessica Sheehan was slicing through the clear water with such vitality it appeared possible that she had just swum in from near her home in Hauppauge, although she said her companion, watching her from shore, was an even better swimmer. She proclaimed the beach to be “beautiful!” but also planned to check out Hay Beach during her visit.
Hay Beach, which many consider the most beautiful beach on Shelter Island, lies at the end of Menhaden Lane, a spot that for much of the island’s history was an industrial fish-processing area. Where the bracing smell of small, oily fish cooking once dominated there is now the sweet tang of sea air.
On a day in late July, Shelter Island swimmer Carol Tiernan emerged from the gentle tide of Hay Beach wearing a pretty multicolored rash guard and “Fivefingers” water shoes to protect her from the pebbly bottom. She noted that in 2015, like last year, local waters have been remarkably free of jellyfish, the nemesis of ocean swimmers. Ms. Tiernan said she prefers to swim parallel to the beach, and not too far out, to avoid the worst predations of the jellies.
“Louis’ Beach is the warmest, Hay Beach is the coldest,” said Ms. Tiernan, bearing out measurements made with a digital meat thermometer showing that on a day when the water at Hay Beach was 76 degrees, it was 78 degrees at Louis’.
Ms. Tiernan pointed out that parking at Hay Beach is not easy, especially since several parking spots were recently eliminated.
The Hiberry Lane Town Landing
About a mile north of Hay Beach, at the end of Hiberry Lane, is a town landing with a split rail fence framing a small tidal creek that feeds a marshy area that was once the hay field that gave Hay Beach its name. You can tell by the direction of the stream whether the tide is going in or out, good information to have in order to swim with the current. Swim left and you’re swimming toward Greenport Harbor, swim right and you’re swimming toward Orient Harbor, Gardiners Bay, and the Atlantic Ocean. As lovely as the beach is, it’s usually not busy. The water was 78 degrees on a recent July day. There was some seaweed, no jellyfish and a half-sandy, half-pebbly bottom.
Wades Beach is located on a bend at 110 South Midway Road, on the far side of one of the island’s largest parking lots. An official town beach, it has two uncommon and useful features: a bathroom and a lifeguard. A large roped-off area of water with a sandy bottom turns the bay into a giant saltwater pool, a great place for swimmers to get some open-water experience. The water there earlier this summer was 79 degrees.
At the end of Oak Tree Lane in Silver Beach, a spectacular spit of sand extends for almost a mile into Shelter Island Sound. It’s called Shell Beach but is actually two very different beaches in the same place. To the north is West Neck Harbor, where the water is calm and the boats and sunbathers are plentiful. The south side is more exposed and the water is a little rougher, but the swimming is great. The water temperature was 79 degrees earlier this summer and the bottom was very pebbly. Shell Beach is a town landing and not an official “bathing beach,” meaning it has no facilities.
Be sure to stay clear of whatever the piping plovers drop near their beachfront nesting areas — for their sake and yours.
Fresh Pond is a small, natural freshwater lake in the center of the island that can be accessed by a town landing at the end of Fresh Pond Road. Lovely to look at, its history as a swimming hole is as old as the local debate about whether the water is clean. When the jellyfish are plentiful in the bays, Fresh Pond is a welcome jellyfish-free zone. And at 85 degrees in late July, it was the warmest water by far of any other Shelter Island swimming spot. The sandy bottom means you can wade right in without shoes.
This story originally appeared in the 2015 edition of northforker Wellness