Searching the treacherous sea for calm
There were a few dozen bathers on Haifa's Student Beach on Sunday. The sun sometimes disappeared behind the clouds, the winds were dry, and the sea was quiet and flat - all signs that fall is coming.
Rotem Bikel and her friend Tanya, both 20-somethings from Haifa, had finished a short workday at their army base, and they were there at the beach. The beach, at the southern entrance to the city, is unauthorized for swimming, and has no life guard.
As the conversation began, Bikel told Haaretz that Uri Constantine, 49, one of three people who drowned off an unauthorized beach near Caesarea this weekend, was the father of a soldier in her unit.
"We know drowning is a risk," Bikel said, "but we don't go into the deep water. We just go in for five minutes, for a dip, and come out to tan."
They've been visiting the Student Beach ("Magic words that attract women," says a bather named Muli Grover) for several years, and they saw a drowning, which shocked them. Nonetheless, they continue coming to the beach.
"Two months ago we went to Camel [an authorized beach nearby]. There were two entire families, men, women and children, shouting and making lots of noise, and they set up a table ... as they sat down, police came and asked to see identification. There was arguing and yelling; it was unpleasant," Tanya said.
The families had "taken over" a large stretch of beach, and "they nearly sat on us," Bikel said. The two packed up, and have not been back to the official beach since then. "We come here because we are looking for quiet, far from the restaurants, the boardwalk, the catcalls. Here that doesn't happen. And this place is not set up for families and children," Tanya said.
The Student Beach is the best known unauthorized beach in the Haifa area. People say the first visitors were indeed students, looking to escape the noise of the official beaches, packed from summer performances and activities. But the potential of the quiet beach was soon discovered by (unauthorized) merchants, who rented chairs and umbrellas from their cars. Bathers began coming in large numbers. Now, thousands of young people visit the beach on weekends, including teenagers looking to see and be seen, equipped with paddle balls and sunscreen.
The students themselves come during the week, when the beach is quieter. On weekends they migrate farther south, to the beaches known as the Arches, the Chair and the Boat, named for the installations on the side of the coastal road.
"There's comraderie here," said Gal Asraf, who visits the beach once or twice a day. "The prettiest girls come here, distancing themselves from the official beaches because they don't want to hear the lifeguard shouting, 'You, in red, move to the right,' and 'Kid, where's your father?'"
"People like it when things are difficult," said Muli Grover, who has been coming to the beach daily for the past few decades. "It's difficult to get here, it's quiet, the sea is open, it's relatively clean, and you can go topless."
At Dado Beach to the north, four lifeguards were sitting in their booth. Dori Nimetsky said that during September and October the sea was usually calmer, except for special situations due to low air pressure or storms abroad. Still, drowning is a risk. His colleague Yossi Ariel said that northern winds increase during these months, drawing the sand from the deep water toward the shore, and creating mounds in shallow water which mislead bathers, who may find themselves in deeper water than they thought.
Swimming at official beaches can be dangerous, and at unofficial beaches, even more so, said the lifeguards. But Grover and friends were unimpressed. They balance pleasure and danger by "respecting the sea," they say.
"If I feel that the sea is disagreeable, I don't go in," Grover said. "You need to study the sea and know your limits. I see people going in who don't realize where they are."
Asraf has a similar philosophy. "The sea doesn't take money, doesn't make trouble, but is always here for good and bad and needs to be respected. It can take you in a second; the ones who pay the price are the people who are less familiar with the water. I don't go into stormy water, you have to respect where you are. Come, enjoy, splash a little water on yourself, feel the salt, why take a risk?"