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Making tracks: Patrol becomes part of the routine on area beaches

By Charles Swenson
Coastal Observer

The words still sting, though John Magann doesn’t seem eager to admit it.

“I had one woman tell me, ‘You ruined my vacation because police were on the beach,’ ” he recalled.

Magann has been with the Georgetown County Sheriff’s Office beach patrol since it began five years ago. It is the only complaint he has heard about the concept, though there are people who question the ban on glass containers and the leash law that he enforces.

Most people say they are happy to see the beach patrol, and on a recent trip in an all-terrain vehicle along the 7 miles from Midway Inlet to Murrells Inlet, beachgoers who acknowledged the patrol did so with a wave and a smile. One woman lying on a towel in the sun raised her head as the ATV rumbled near, sized it up briefly and flopped back on the sand.

“I just take it all in stride,” Magann said.

The two-man patrol is funded by a portion of the revenue the county receives from the state tax on short-term accommodations. The $82,175 covers the cost of salaries, benefits and insurance. That’s likely to go up next year when the two Kawasaki ATVs that are the main patrol vehicles will need to be replaced along with the pickup truck used to tow the equipment to the beach.

The patrol covers the south end of Garden City as well as Litchfield Beaches. “I feel it is an asset to this county to have a public safety presence in areas prone to large numbers of visitors,”

Sheriff Lane Cribb said. The goal of the beach patrol is “a safe environment for all to enjoy.”

The county has a short list of rules that apply on the beach: no vehicles, no littering and no sleeping overnight, in addition to the glass container ban and the law that requires dogs to be on a leash from 9 a.m. until 7 p.m.

Magann was surprised to hear someone at Garden City say he came to the Georgetown County portion of the beach because it doesn’t have a leash law. He corrected him. The man explained it he didn’t mean a dog leash but the leash used to keep a surfboard attached to a surfer. That’s among the rules in effect in Horry County.

Since the beach patrol started, the county added a rule that prohibits leaving tents and other “beach furniture” out overnight. The items obstruct the sea turtles that lay eggs in the dunes.

And last week, the county approved a series of fireworks-free zones on the beach in front of houses and condos in Litchfield by the Sea. It is now illegal to shoot fireworks from or into those zones.

The beach patrol follows the season from about April through September. If there are people on the beach, the deputies will be there, too. In the peak season, the combination of people and tides can limit patrols. As the tide advances and people pack into a narrowing strip of sand there often isn’t room to maneuver the ATVs, Magann said.

Even Saturday morning at low tide, it didn’t take long for beach towels and tents to cover the tracks of the ATV as Magann rode through Litchfield. “I like to ride high,” he explained, meaning near the high tide mark. That allows him a better view of what’s happening.

He can spot the neck of a glass beer bottle sticking up through a koozie at 50 yards, as an Ohio man at North Litchfield discovered.

“Partner, we’ve got a problem,” Magann told him.

The fine is $250 a bottle. Magann wrote a warning.

“I thought you were writing me up for my washboard abs,” the man said.

At Litchfield Beach, a man put a bottle in a trash can at the end of a walkway.

“Sir, that was your last bottle?” Magann asked in a way that was less like a question than it sounded.

“It’s all cans,” the man replied, holding up a small cooler.

Some people have questioned the bottle rule, telling Magann beer tastes better in a glass bottle than a metal can.

“Dude, you’re drinking Bud Light,” told one.

He has also helped a girl who had a cut from a broken bottle that took 14 stitches to close.

A little farther south a Columbia man digging in the sand with his kids tried to hide a bottle.

“Man, there is no point hiding it,” Magann told him. Another warning.

Before he could start out again, four girls stopped Magann to ask him to take their picture. That happens frequently.

“This might be the only time they see the Georgetown County Sheriff’s Office,” Magann said afterward. “On the highway, they aren’t going to stop and ask you to take their picture.”

He is also a source of information for tourists, which is why he sounds pained to recall the woman who said her vacation was spoiled.

Magann grew up at Murrells Inlet, where his parents still live, and where he and his wife, Anna, and their month-old daughter live.

People on the beach tell him, “you’ve got the best job in the world,” he said.

“That’s true for about the first 20 minutes,” he said. In July and August, the heat from the sun combines with the heat rising from the ATV engine. On crowded days, the machine creeps along at a walking pace, which means there’s no breeze.

Not that he’s complaining. “For the sheriff’s office, this is probably the most relaxing job,” Magann said.

Along with enforcing the county ordinances, the beach patrol deputies are trained in water rescue and work with the area fire departments on rescues.

He once pulled four people from the water off the Garden City Pier, three Horry County Police officers and the suspect they were chasing who dove off the pier and kept swimming. The officers followed until they were all about 2 miles offshore.

John Thomas, president of the Litchfield Beaches Property Owners Association, said he hasn’t heard any complaints about the beach patrol. “I think they’re doing a good job,” he said.

He usually sees the beach patrol when he is out watching for sea turtle nests. “They were stopping and talking to people. Everybody was glad to see them,” Thomas said.

However, he admitted, “for those of us who have dogs, it can be a hassle.”

The leash law is right up there with glass as an enforcement issue. Glass bottles tend to be an issue with vacationers and unleashed dogs most often belong to residents, Magann said.

Over time, he’s written fewer citations as people become more aware of the law and the patrol.

While dog owners grumble, he said he also gets thanks from people who say the loose dogs are a nuisance.

And when jellyfish start to appear in the surf, he will pack vinegar with his other supplies to spray on stings.

Magann admits it isn’t a job that would appeal to everyone in law enforcement, but he spent four years on patrol and has no desire to go back.

“I’m living the dream,” Magann said. “I have a pickup, a four-wheeler, a boat, I work on the beach and I’m in Murrells Inlet.

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