In the best of all possible worlds, you’re reading this newsletter on the beach. If you’re not, we’ve got the next best thing: a collection of pieces about the beach, set here in America and all over the world. In “Our Perfect Summer,” David Sedaris recounts his family’s madcap efforts to buy a beach house; in “The British Invasion,” Lauren Collins visits a small town on the Croatian coast that’s been transformed by hordes of rowdy, sun-drunk Britons. In “The Beach Builders,” John Seabrook explores the effort to rebuild the Jersey Shore; in “The End of Sand,” David Owen investigates the worldwide sand shortage that’s affecting construction, manufacturing, and other industries. Finally, Ottessa Moshfegh brings us a short story about the aftermath of a tropical vacation, and Colin Nissan offers some tips for sculpting your beach body. He has a shortcut: “Stay submerged up to your neck for as much of the summer as possible.”
Letter From Poreč
April 16, 2012 Issue
The British Invasion
A Croatian town embraces an onslaught of partying.
By Lauren Collins
The buses disgorged swaying centurions, singing pirates, men wearing drinking helmets, a girl with a blow-up doll slung over her shoulder, and a guy wearing something that looked like a diaper.
Photograph by Peter Dench / Reportage by Getty
On the third Friday in March, Nicholas York, a student at the University of East Anglia, packed a bag for five days in Poreč, Croatia. He was travelling light: swimming trunks, passport, flip-flops, Morphsuit. A sort of full-body balaclava, a Morphsuit obscures even the face, giving its wearer the look of a salamander with a sex fetish. Ubiquitous anywhere young British people are partying, Morphsuits are the new mankinis, which were the new glitter cowboy hats. “It’s pretty comfortable,” York, whose silvery epidermis glowed atomic beneath one of Poreč’s street lamps, said. “But you need someone to go with you to the toilet.”
On the patio of Pub Spacio, a nearby bar, people were dancing to a cover band performing Jennifer Lopez’s “On the Floor.” Others slouched, like jellyfish, on a curb. One soul had strayed onto the sloping terra-cotta roof of the strip mall that housed the bar. The scene resembled a Bosch painting, but with palm trees and Jäger shots. York, dressed as the Silver Surfer, a Marvel Comics superhero, and his fellow-revellers—a group of British students a thousand strong—were in town as part of a package tour called Festival Croatia. He invited me to step onto his surfboard. He was hanging seven or eight out of ten, but a halo that had formed around the area where his mouth should have been gave me pause. Morphsuits.com, a Scottish company that sold seven million dollars’ worth of merchandise last year, guarantees, in an F.A.Q. section, the permeability of its product: “Yep, easy—the Morphsuit is thin, totally breathable and will let you pour your drink (water we presume) straight through it! But it is not so great when liquids go the other way, so go easy on the Lambrinis!”
Poreč, a seaside village of seventeen thousand inhabitants, lies midway down the western coast of Istria, the peninsula that sticks out into the Adriatic Sea like a megaphone. A Roman fortress town, established in the second century B.C., it has an old city, cobblestone streets, and a sixth-century basilica, which is a UNESCO protected site, with beautifully preserved Byzantine mosaics. It is not naïve about some of the cheesier prerogatives of the tourist trade—nestled amid the souvenir ceramics of a shopwindow was a collection of plastic dolls fused into various couplings, with pubic hair that appeared to be made of factory seconds from the craze for trolls—but it is still a lovely place to spend an afternoon. Cafés line the harbor. Piles of fishing nets dot a lungomare shaded by pines. You can sit on a bench in the main plaza with sun on your face while warblers scuttle on gravel paths between tulip beds. You can buy an ice-cream cone from a stand displaying those ice-cream-cone icons which confirm that you are in a European vacation zone. (Who came up with them, and why did he think that the typical scoop colors are yellow, pink, and green?) Farther inland, igloo-shaped stone huts, known as kazun, provide shade for workers tending the fields. The region is known for its cuisine: manestra (a boiled vegetable soup), prsut (a prosciutto-like cured meat), wild asparagus, goat, olive oil. “Move over, Tuscany: truffles and hilltop towns are all the rage in Croatia,” the Fodor’s guide declared of Istria, an “emerging hotspot,” in its list of Places to Go in 2012.
British holidaymakers, who basically invented European tourism—snapping up Canalettos on the Grand Tour, sliding down the Cresta Run, and, later, transforming Spain’s Magaluf into “Shagaluf,” and the Costa del Sol into the “Costa del Concrete,” where steak-and-kidney pies outnumber paellas—are a potent bloc. Britons made fifty-six million visits abroad last year, about the same number made by Americans, who outnumber them by a factor of five. Eighty per cent of the British population possesses a passport, versus America’s thirty-five. An old joke asserts that the British weather is the world’s most powerful colonizing influence. While Americans hide their vacations from co-workers, in Britain, where life can take on the feeling of a series of sunny escapes punctuated by refractory periods, holidays are as common a conversational currency as sports. There is an entire genre of newspaper story that catalogues the grisly fates suffered by the British on holiday, such as that of two elderly sisters, frequent visitors to Benidorm, who died when they became trapped in their condo’s Murphy bed. A recent poll calculated that the average Briton first goes abroad at the age of three. In “Cream Teas, Traffic Jams, and Sunburns,” a history of the British vacation, Brian Viner writes, “I would wager that more of my countrymen have seen the inside of Faro Airport than have seen the inside of York Minster or Lincoln Cathedral.”
The British package holiday began on July 5, 1841, when the Baptist minister Thomas Cook hired a train to carry several hundred teetotallers from Leicester to a temperance rally in Loughborough. After the Second World War, with the wider availability of planes and money, the Mediterranean became popular. As foreign travel became more accessible, the image of the elegant Englishman abroad, wearing linen and studying friezes, was joined by a coarser stereotype, more along the lines of, as BBC Radio had it, “twenty-three-year-old Dean from Derby, who had to be flown home from Malia in Crete after being knocked off his Moped.” Proximity is the problem here. When American spring breakers embarrass themselves in Daytona Beach, they’re looked upon as representatives of their age group, not their country.
A concentrated influx of tourists can be a welcome boon to an economy, or it can be a pestilence. “I have always been proud to be British, but these degenerates are dragging us through the mud,” Michael Birkett, Britain’s vice-consul in Ibiza, said, before quitting his job, in 1998, in disgust at the behavior of his countrymen on the island, which he likened to that in Sodom and Gomorrah. After EasyJet began flying to Prague, signs went up in local bars: “Please, no groups of drunken British men allowed.” In 2008, Latvia’s Interior Minister deemed the “English pigs” who had urinated on a war monument in Riga a “dirty, hoggish people.” The next year—after shopkeepers in Malia staged an anti-British-tourist march—the Foreign Office distributed leaflets and coasters in old towns and beach bars across Europe, printed with the reminder “Don’t Be a Dick.”
This was Festival Croatia’s inaugural year. “This year we asked you where you would like to go for your student sports tour in 2012 and the answer was loud and clear—CROATIA!” the brochure for the trip read. Ian Kaye, the general manager of ILoveTour, the company that had organized the trip, told me, “The kind-of-early adopters have made Croatia the cool place, and now it’ll become mainstream in the next few years.” The island of Pag, farther down the Adriatic coast, is a better known clubbing destination than Poreč, but its growing popularity—the magazine D.J. named Club Papaya, where d.j.s spin “music to dry-hump to,” the thirty-second-best club in the world—has had a trickle-down effect, in terms of both infrastructure and expectation. The Festival Croatia brochure advertised Poreč as “famous for its nightlife,” promising a party at Byblos, “one of the biggest and best clubs in Croatia,” on opening night. In 2006, Ryanair launched a direct flight from London Stansted to Pula, a town about thirty miles from Poreč. Before, you had to fly to Trieste, rent a car, and drive a couple of hours to get there. (Jet2 begins service from Manchester to Pula in May.) Croatia is set to enter the European Union in 2013. For now, a caipirinha in Poreč costs about as much as a cup of tea in Grimsby.
For the past ten years, ILoveTour has put on Saloufest, a springtime rampage that brings nine thousand British students to Spain’s northeastern coast. The company bills both Saloufest and Festival Croatia as undergraduate sports fairs, which is a bit like calling Mardi Gras a liturgical celebration. In 2010, the Sun featured the diary of a Saloufest attendee who claimed to have drunk sixty funnels of sangria, fifteen beers, and forty shots in the course of her visit. She wrote of horrified locals and lads “smeared in butter.” The same year, the Salou city council passed an ordinance aimed at curbing the inappropriate dress of Saloufest-goers. During last year’s event, El Mundo declared, “Before midnight the scene was indescribable. Hundreds of students in a whirlwind that would shame any parent.”
Glas Istre, the paper in Poreč, sent a reporter to assess the newcomers. An upbeat story, headlined “THE BRITISH LOOKING FOR FUN OCCUPY THE MOST FAMOUS BEACHES IN POREC,” told of a mass of “tired but cheerful, excellent students from Great Britain” who were in Poreč, “spending spring break in sporting events, socializing, and entertainment.” Some residents, writing in the comments section, were dubious that their presence would benefit the community. A reader called Berislav wrote, “They came here because they consider it their colonies, so they think they can do whatever they want! But this arrangement is only in the interests of individuals who will skim off the cream, leaving others with the dregs.” Another wrote, “Drunks and whores.”
An academic theory called the Butler model holds that there are five stages of tourism, beginning with “Discovery” and ending in “Decline or Rejuvenation.” Poreč seemed to be on the brink of Stage 3, “Success,” in which “mass tourism replaces what was once the original economic function of the settlement,” and “may cause some resentment with people in the town who have not benefited from the new industry or from the loss of distinct identity that the settlement held before.” Poreč was succeeding, but it was unclear what kind of success it would be. Was it the next Montepulciano, with agriturismo and “Super-Istrian” wines, or was it the next Ibiza, a land of men in Morphsuits staggering home at sunrise?
Packing List Item No. 5: apple-juice bottles. Filled with Red Bull and vodka, they were instrumental in circumventing the alcohol ban that ILoveTour had instituted for the twenty-four-hour bus ride that delivered the students—from Newcastle and Loughborough, Manchester and Brighton, Sussex and Middlesbrough—to Poreč. “Ookayy, I’ve got 8 kopparbergs for the journey and I’m thinking of getting a couple of bottles of spirits 🙂 #messes waaa,” one of them had tweeted. Another had posted a picture of her inventory—a still-life with raspberry Sambuca.
The students arrived in the parking lot of Poreč’s Hotel Delfin on Sunday afternoon. They had paid two hundred and twenty-nine pounds each for a package that included transportation, lodging, daily breakfast, a resort map, and a T-shirt. They had been cautioned about nudity (“We hope you have an incredible, stupendous, pant-wettingly, unforgettable week,” but “for heaven’s sake KEEP YOUR CLOTHES ON MAN!!” read a brochure), and about body paint (“The damage caused by body paint numbers into tens of thousands of euros every year”), but the twenty buses—charabancs for social networkers—disgorged swaying centurions, singing pirates, men wearing drinking helmets, men not wearing shirts, a girl with a blow-up doll slung over her shoulder, and a guy wearing something that looked like a diaper. Someone was wielding a shepherd’s crook. A group of female soccer players had T-shirts that said “If This Is What Happens in Teesside, Watch What We Do in Croatia.” The students dropped their bags and headed out into the sun. “The pool is now officially open!” an m.c. proclaimed over a loudspeaker. “First one to do a belly flop gets to take Kate home tonight. So crack on!”
Brian Viner writes that “the British on holiday are great, if covert, people-watchers”—but the British on holiday also make for great people-watching. The walkers, armed with Ordnance Survey maps, knock the mud off their boots on the doormats of country pubs. The gap-year-takers swathe themselves in kaffiyehs and “chunder everywhere.” The Francophiles drink rosé in the gardens of stone villas. The Spain crowd pronounces “tapas” in a way that would make a profesora blush. A few summers ago, I saw a man in a Panama hat lounging on the terrace of a restaurant in Puglia. I knew him to be English at a hundred paces, by his crimson socks. Crimson skin is another giveaway. There is a pub on the Greek island of Kos called the Sunburnt Arms.
“I already noted plenty of beauty on the drive up.”
The most colorful species of British tourist, and perhaps the most notorious, is the one in fancy dress. In December, an M.P. lost a ministerial position, and became part of a criminal investigation, after attending a stag party in the French ski resort of Val Thorens at which the prospective groom had dressed up as an S.S. officer while his friends chanted, “Hitler! Hitler! Hitler!” Each year, the Foreign Office’s “British Behavior Abroad” report includes such sentences as “Indecent exposure in the more lively resorts has caused problems, such as when 17 costumed ‘nuns’ were arrested for disrespecting local customs.” If the conspicuous American tourist wears white sneakers, you will know the Brit by his tutu.
“Suck it like you mean it!” Chris Batley, an affable twenty-two-year-old who had come to Croatia with about twenty friends from his university, in Wales, yelled, as one of them, dressed in tiny pink bike shorts and a sailor’s cap, began to funnel a concoction of Malibu, beer, and rakija, a Balkan plum brandy.
“We’ve been to Salou,” someone had said, when I asked why they’d picked Croatia. “Been there, done that, didn’t want to do it again.”
“Basically, we come on tour to get smashed.”
What they wanted was a trip that, like a new kind of Gatorade, had the same basic chemical composition but a slightly different flavor. Nominally, they were representatives of the university’s men’s club soccer team.
“We didn’t even bring our boots.”
“Twenty lads, all injured.”
“I’ve got penis descension,” someone said, to hoots.
Sam West, a reedy first-year, had been elected “tour bitch.” He had fallen asleep on the bus. (The trip had taken thirty-seven hours—their buses had broken down twice.) As punishment, the group had adorned his right wrist with a tightly tied toilet brush.
It was eight-thirty on Sunday night, Room 125. The Hotel Delfin was built in 1972, when Istria was part of Tito’s Yugoslavia. The largest property in the Zelena Laguna Resort, a complex of eight hotels, it hulks like a cruise liner over a promontory of shore about a ten-minute drive from the center of Poreč. During the summer, it is a haunt of Continental families. There is a paved beach behind the hotel, with thatched umbrellas. Locals walk their dogs on hiking trails, where the less athletically inclined can relax at a series of “reading points.” One day, I encountered no one but a family of four, whose children, a boy and a girl, had scrambled down onto the rocks and braved the chilly, clear water in matching Mickey Mouse underpants.
The rooms at the Delfin are tiny, the showers grim, but it has a time-capsule charm, suggesting an Adriatic Catskills. Were André Balazs ever to happen upon Poreč, the Delfin would in no time be filled with childless professionals paying dearly to partake of the international buffet and daily sessions of aqua aerobics.
For now, Kings—a card game that requires a tolerance for alcohol and humiliation more than skill—was providing the entertainment. “Two for you, three for me, four for floor, five waterfall, six make a rule, seven heaven, eight pick a date, nine bust a rhyme, ten categories,” Batley said, by way of explaining the rules. I had accepted the offer of a Maraska-and-Coke, made with a local Maraschino liqueur. Another popular fusion cocktail was rakija-and-Fanta. Having once spent a summer terrorizing the citizens of Valencia, Spain, as part of a study-abroad group, I was familiar with Kings. There were a few Welsh variations on the game.
“Spitroast, you knob!” someone yelled, as I turned to shield my eyes from a pasty eclipse of skin.
We were sitting on a balcony, under a lucid spread of stars. Except for a set of iPod speakers, it was, to my surprise, a technology-free affair. No one was texting, taking pictures, making videos, or calling girls. The scene was less “Girls Gone Wild” than “The Inbetweeners,” a sort of British “American Pie” (it grossed seventy million dollars this fall) about a group of friends who undergo a series of misadventures on a graduation trip to Crete.
To get outside, we had walked past a double bed, flanked by a night table, upon which someone had lovingly arranged a small fortune in hair gels, deodorants, and fragranced body sprays. It was a sweet tableau. A sign in the hotel lobby, however, suggested that ILoveTour had reason to think that perhaps not everyone would take such good care of his surroundings. It was a list of potential fines, calculated from prior experience:
Eventually, the card game degenerated into a contest called Odd or Even, in which the boys sat around in a circle, pulling clumps of hair from each other’s thighs. “Owwww!” Tom Gunby, a red-headed second-year, yelled, limping. After a while, they just started dead-legging each other.
They sang, “We are here / Shagging your women / And drinking your beer / With a knick knack paddywhack / Give a dog a bone / Why don’t hockey fuck off home!,” as a muscular second-year, dressed as a ballerina, stood on the railing, alternating crotch thrusts and pirouettes.
The tourist season in Poreč usually begins at Easter. The area surrounding the hotel, which included a scruffy public beach, with a view of some cranes, and a little strip of pizzerias and pubs, was deserted. From the perspective of the ILoveTour people, desolation was ideal. For their test run in Croatia, they had in mind the diametric opposite of the aims of most tourists: they wanted to be wherever the locals were not. In that respect, they had scouted the place perfectly. All the businesses that had opened had done so explicitly at their request. The area, as a closed set, felt a bit like an Olympic village, raising, for residents, debates over whether the hassle would be worth it, whether the economic effect would be lasting, and whether they’d be left to clean up a mess. Despite the promises of the brochure, Byblos was not within walking distance of the Hotel Delfin. Nor would there be an opening-night party there, as the club had declined to host the group. Ivica Malinaric, the owner of Pub Spacio, stood to become one of the main beneficiaries of this change of plans. The day before the tour group arrived, he had been at the pub, directing a team of workers in red coveralls, as they hammered and swept. He had installed a d.j. booth and a new light system expressly for the occasion. He didn’t care what the tourists did, as long as they bought drinks. “Last year, at the Outlook Festival”—a music festival in Pula—“it was six thousand British, and they destroyed everything, even grass,” he said. “So what? The grass will grow again.”
For the canny entrepreneur, the tour yielded myriad opportunities. Shortly after the buses arrived, a band of boys wandered down to a lane of kiosks that abutted the beach, wearing tank tops that looked as if they were made from shredded burlap bags.
“Do you see the potato sacks they are wearing?” the owner of a sandwich stand said to a friend.
“You want to do business, you need to buy a few potato sacks.”
The year 2011 was Croatia’s best year ever for tourism. The government recently announced a billion-kuna credit line for the promotion of tourism. In central Poreč, the tourist bureau was filled with gorgeous brochures, minimally designed and expensively printed on thick white paper. They extolled the region’s hiking, biking, and gastronomy. “The Istrian Peninsula has managed to preserve true and original natural values,” one of them read, hailing Istria as “an ecological and healthy tourist destination.”
Igor Beakovic, an employee of the bureau, was sitting behind a desk. He hadn’t read the article in Glas Istre.
“A thousand?” he said, when I mentioned the tour group. “That’s a thousand too much!” He went on, “I don’t think we need this here. It’s not appropriate for Istria, with its long history. My opinion is that Istria is more like music that’s underground. It’s for people who know.”
The night before, I had eaten dinner at a konoba—a traditional Croatian restaurant—in a farmhouse about ten minutes from Poreč. Beef was sizzling on an open hearth in one corner of the room. The wine, made from hundred-year-old vines growing less than a mile away, was by the litra. Ordering was a process of negotiation. We ate wonderfully: cheese with truffles, a cakey house bread, pljukanci (worm-shaped pasta with prsut, mushrooms, and spinach), fuzi (pasta that’s hand-rolled like cigarettes), steaks, grass-green olive oil in old-fashioned cruets. It was the season for sparoge, a spindly wild asparagus that is harvested, with an accompanying festival, in April. The meal, for three, cost about seventy euros. “I think people here are very ‘green,’ ” Spomenka Lolic, the director of the Byron Language School, in Pula, had told me. “All the organic food—people never stopped doing that here. They just waited long enough to be rediscovered.”
The students hadn’t heard about the asparagus festival. “It was mingin’,” one of the students had said when I asked about dinner, which was served in the Hotel Delfin’s restaurant. Even a few locals seemed to think that the authorities’ desire to present Poreč as a place of Sonoma-like gentility was overdone. “We don’t just want pensioners who go to sleep at 9 P.M.!” someone wrote, in response to the Glas Istre article. “Of course it will be noisy—they’re young and they came to have fun, and we are advertised as an attractive tourist destination, not as a geriatric paradise.”
“It’s a marriage of convenience for the week,” Ian Kaye, the tour director, said one night, outside of Pub Spacio. “We couldn’t do this in July or August, and we know that.”
As he spoke, we caught sight of some figures in the distance. They had turned a copse of trees into an al-fresco bathroom.
“You’re here for the sports, mate, aren’t you!” Kaye yelled.
He turned to me. “If you’ve made two thousand euros, and one of the lads falls over and breaks a chair, you can kind of deal with that.”
Morning. Bright sun. Breakfast was Karlovacko, a Croatian beer, and Popsicles. At the rugby pitch—the public beach, repurposed—a crowd was watching the scrum. A guy in a rainbow-colored top hat and a pinafore was glugging out of a bottle of wine. His friends had wheeled over the provisions for the day in a purloined shopping cart. Another student, disregarding instructions, had taken his pants off.
An older man in a track suit approached the spectators. He was Zovonko Sučević, the owner of a nearby market.
“First time take, second time big problem, O.K.?” he said, wheeling the cart away. Sučević later reported that he had sold a thousand snacks, fifty bottles of vodka, forty bottles of gin, and sixty bottles of Istrian wine in the course of the week.
The Welsh students were over at the Hotel Delfin beach, sprawled on the sidelines of a volleyball game. (Finally, on the last day, they broke out of Zelena Laguna, with a boat cruise along the undulating coastline that surrounds Poreč—they praised the “beautiful islands” and “the greenery.”) The night before, after Pub Spacio, they had loaded onto buses for the five-minute drive to Club Plava, a night spot run by Vedran Matic, a bantamweight sharpie with a scar below his left eyebrow. Wednesdays at Plava are “Too Hot” night, with, according to a sign out front, “male & female striptease, lesbian show, and hot summer vibes.” On Sunday, Matic had told me, he usually has “saxophone, bongos, and a female on the violin.”
It was preseason, but Plava, with a steam machine and a laser show, was packed. A group of Manchester girls dressed as Ronald McDonalds mingled with Morphsuited boys, who had unzipped the top parts of their suits, in the manner of bankers loosening their ties. At one point, the Ronald McDonalds all took their shirts off, slinging them around their heads like propellers. At another, I looked up to see a lone Tom, the redhead, doing the “Titanic” move, his arms flung back at the helm of a dance cage.
On the beach, Sam, the tour bitch, approached. The toilet brush was no longer attached to his wrist. “Oh, yeah, they needed it to clear up some broken glass,” he said.
“We need kebabs,” someone said.
“We need a bigger club.”
“No kebabs, that’s the worst part of the tour.”
That evening, they were planning to take a piece of toilet paper, string it between two people’s buttocks, light it on fire, and see if someone could chug a beer before the flames singed his ass.
A little bit later, a pool party got going up at the hotel.
“Please don’t crack your head open,” the d.j. said. “It’s a lot of paperwork.”
The Jennifer Lopez song had been playing all weekend. “Brazil, Morocco, London to Ibiza,” Lopez sang. “Straight to L.A., New York, Vegas to Africa.” For now, there was no mention of Poreč. ♦
Lauren Collins began working at The New Yorker in 2003 and became a staff writer in 2008. She is the author of “When in French: Love in a Second Language.”Read more »
Shouts & Murmurs
May 19, 2014 Issue
Your Beach Body
By Colin Nissan
Illustration by Gary Taxali
We regret to inform you that your beach body, slated for arrival in early June of this year, will be delayed, perhaps indefinitely. A number of factors, all under your direct control, have contributed to this unfortunate setback.
First and foremost, you are still eating a lot of food. While you have done an excellent job of including more vegetables in your diet, you have also included more of everything else, like cake. In the past month alone, you have eaten cake on eight occasions. None of which were birthday-related.
You have been complaining about your metabolism slowing down. Metabolic rate is difficult to determine, but what is certainly not slowing down is your intake of frozen French-bread pizzas. In fact, it is more than likely that one of those cheese-choked blubber-makers is circling inside your microwave at this very moment.
Making your hip-hop workout playlist right after the New Year seemed like a big step in the right direction. Of course, music can help only so much if you don’t own sneakers, which, technically, you didn’t until March.
While your recent efforts to increase the intensity of your workouts have been admirable, a look at the numbers indicates that your treadmill speeds have increased only from an average of 3.8 miles per hour to 3.9 miles per hour. Not surprisingly, the impact on your body has been negligible. One might argue that it has worked to your detriment, given that your duration on the treadmill has plummeted by an average of fourteen minutes.
As you know, motivation can be elusive. There are unseen forces that oppose motivation and seek to douse the flames of inspiration. In your case, that force is napping. You really do nap a lot.
This far into any successful beach-body program, you should not still be wearing your fat jeans. By now, you should have already held those jeans up in front of you and proudly marvelled that you were ever that big. But you can’t hold them up and marvel at them, because they are on your body. Snugly.
If you were to stay true to your original beach-body timeline, you would begin some preliminary swimsuit shopping right around now. Owing to the significant delays you’re experiencing, we do not recommend standing in front of a three-way mirror at this point, unless you want all three of you to feel terrible about yourselves.
As the days pass and the temperatures rise, you may find yourself scrambling to recalibrate your goals. To lose just five pounds instead of twenty, say, or to unearth just one ab instead of six. Sadly, when measured against the utopian physique you set out to achieve, these thoughts will quickly fade—drowned out, in all likelihood, by the crunch of a Cheeto.
In conclusion, with some significant life-style tweaks you could, according to our estimates, achieve your beach body by November. Just in time for Thanksgiving. Revealing your actual body before then, as you likely will, may trigger feelings of disappointment and guilt, even shame. Try to focus not on negative emotions but on ways in which you can stay positive and also stay submerged up to your neck for as much of the summer as possible. ♦
Colin Nissan, a writer and voice actor, is a frequent contributor to McSweeney’s.Read more »
Annals of Geology
May 29, 2017 Issue
The World Is Running Out of Sand
It’s one of our most widely used natural resources, but it’s scarcer than you think.
By David Owen
A report said that sand and gravel mining “greatly exceeds natural renewal rates.”
Illustration by Javier Jaén
The final event of last year’s beach-volleyball world tour was held in Toronto, in September, in a parking lot at the edge of Lake Ontario. There’s a broad public beach nearby, but few actual beaches meet the Fédération Internationale de Volleyball’s strict standards for sand, so the tournament’s sponsor had erected a temporary stadium and imported thirteen hundred and sixty tons from a quarry two and a half hours to the north. The shipment arrived in thirty-five tractor-trailer loads.
I visited the site shortly before the tournament, and spoke with Todd Knapton, who was supervising the installation. He’s the vice-president of the company that supplied the sand, Hutcheson Sand & Mixes, in Huntsville, Ontario. He’s in his fifties, and he was wearing a white hard hat, a neon-yellow-green T-shirt, dark-gray shorts, and slip-on steel-toed boots. We walked through a gate and across an expanse of asphalt to a pair of warmup courts, which from a distance looked like enormous baking pans filled with butterscotch-brownie batter. “You want to see the players buried up to their ankles,” he said, and stuck in a foot, to demonstrate. “Rain or shine, hot or cold, it should be like a kid trying to ride a bicycle through marbles.”
Ordinary beach sand tends to be too firm for volleyball: when players dive into it, they break fingers, tear hamstrings, and suffer other impact injuries. Knapton helped devise the sport’s sand specifications, after Canadian players complained about the courts at the 1996 Olympic Games, in Atlanta. “It was trial and error at first,” he said. “But we came up with an improved recipe, and we now have a material that’s uniform from country to country to country, on five continents.” The specifications govern the shape, size, and hardness of the sand grains, and they disallow silt, clay, dirt, and other fine particles, which not only stick to perspiring players but also fill voids between larger grains, making the playing surface firmer. The result is sand that drains so well that building castles with it would be impossible. “We had two rainstorms last night, but these courts are ready to play on,” he said. “You could take a fire hose to this sand and you’d never flood it.”
Beach-volleyball promoters all over the world have to submit one-kilogram samples to Knapton for approval, and his office now contains hundreds of specimens. (He also vets beach-soccer sand for FIFA.) Hutcheson doesn’t ship its own sand to events overseas, but Knapton and his colleagues often create courts in other countries, after sourcing sand where they can. He took off his hard hat and showed me the underside of the brim, on which he had recorded, in black Sharpie, the names and dates of big events they’ve handled, among them the Olympic Games in Sydney, Athens, Beijing, and London. (The sand for London came from Redhill, in Surrey; the sand for Athens came from Belgium.) The company’s biggest recent challenge was the first European Games, which were held in Baku, Azerbaijan, in 2015. Baku has beaches—it’s on a peninsula on the western shore of the Caspian Sea—but the sand is barely suitable for sunbathing, much less for volleyball. Knapton’s crew searched the region and found a large deposit with the ideal mixture of particle sizes, in a family-owned mine in the Nur Mountains, in southern Turkey, eight hundred miles to the west.
The mine is within shelling distance of the Syrian border. Knapton had planned to transport the sand across central Syria, through Iraq, around Armenia, and into Azerbaijan from the northwest, in two convoys of more than two hundred and fifty trucks each. But geopolitics intervened. “You can cross those borders only at certain hours of the day, and ISIS was making the guys antsy,” he said. “In the end, we said, ‘Well, we could have handled one war.’ ” Instead, Knapton and his crew bagged the sand in one-and-a-half-ton fabric totes, trucked it west to Iskenderun, and craned it onto ships. “We did five vessels, five separate trips,” Knapton said. “The route went across the Mediterranean, up the Aegean, through the Bosporus, across the Black Sea, and into Sochi.” From there, they took the sand by rail through Russia and Georgia, around Armenia, and across Azerbaijan. “The Syrian exodus was on at that time, and we saw people walking for their lives,” he said. “But these were the first-ever European Games, so everything had to be right.”
Sand covers so much of the earth’s surface that shipping it across borders—even uncontested ones—seems extreme. But sand isn’t just sand, it turns out. In the industrial world, it’s “aggregate,” a category that includes gravel, crushed stone, and various recycled materials. Natural aggregate is the world’s second most heavily exploited natural resource, after water, and for many uses the right kind is scarce or inaccessible. In 2014, the United Nations Environment Programme published a report titled “Sand, Rarer Than One Thinks,” which concluded that the mining of sand and gravel “greatly exceeds natural renewal rates” and that “the amount being mined is increasing exponentially, mainly as a result of rapid economic growth in Asia.”
Pascal Peduzzi, a Swiss scientist and the director of one of the U.N.’s environmental groups, told the BBC last May that China’s swift development had consumed more sand in the previous four years than the United States used in the past century. In India, commercially useful sand is now so scarce that markets for it are dominated by “sand mafias”—criminal enterprises that sell material taken illegally from rivers and other sources, sometimes killing to safeguard their deposits. In the United States, the fastest-growing uses include the fortification of shorelines eroded by rising sea levels and more and more powerful ocean storms—efforts that, like many attempts to address environmental challenges, create environmental challenges of their own.
Geologists define sand not by composition but by size, as grains between 0.0625 and two millimetres across. Just below sand on the size scale is silt; just above it is gravel. Most sand consists chiefly of quartz, the commonest form of silica, but there are other kinds. Sand on ocean beaches usually includes a high proportion of shell pieces and, increasingly, bits of decomposing plastic trash; Hawaii’s famous black sand is weathered fragments of volcanic glass; the sand in the dunes at White Sands National Monument, in New Mexico, is mainly gypsum. Sand is almost always formed through the gradual disintegration of bigger rocks, by the action of ice, water, wind, and time, but, as the geologist Michael Welland writes, in his book “Sand: The Never-Ending Story,” many of those bigger rocks were themselves formed from accumulations of the eroded bits of other rocks, and “perhaps half of all sand grains have been through six cycles in the mill, liberated, buried, exposed, and liberated again.”
Sand is also classified by shape, in configurations that range from oblong and sharply angular to nearly spherical and smooth. Desert sand is almost always highly rounded, because strong winds knock the grains together so forcefully that protrusions and sharp edges break off. River sand is more angular. William H. Langer, a research geologist who retired from the U.S. Geological Survey a few years ago and now works as a private consultant, told me, “In a stream, there’s a tiny film of water around each grain, so when the grains bang together there’s enough energy to break them apart but not enough to let them rub against each other.” The shape of sand deposited by glaciers and ice sheets depends partly on how far the sand was moved and what it was moved over. Most of the sand in the Hutcheson quarry is “sub-angular”: the grains have fractured faces, but the sharp edges have been partly abraded away. Sand that’s very slightly more smooth-edged is “sub-rounded.”
Aggregate is the main constituent of concrete (eighty per cent) and asphalt (ninety-four per cent), and it’s also the primary base material that concrete and asphalt are placed on during the building of roads, buildings, parking lots, runways, and many other structures. A report published in 2004 by the American Geological Institute said that a typical American house requires more than a hundred tons of sand, gravel, and crushed stone for the foundation, basement, garage, and driveway, and more than two hundred tons if you include its share of the street that runs in front of it. A mile-long section of a single lane of an American interstate highway requires thirty-eight thousand tons. The most dramatic global increase in aggregate consumption is occurring in parts of the world where people who build roads are trying to keep pace with people who buy cars. Chinese officials have said that by 2030 they hope to have completed a hundred and sixty-five thousand miles of roads—a national network nearly three and a half times as long as the American interstate system.
“I’m going to miss standing and staring balefully at seated passengers on the subway once it’s over.”
Windowpanes, wineglasses, and cell-phone screens are made from melted sand. Sand is used for filtration in water-treatment facilities, septic systems, and swimming pools. Oil and gas drillers inject large quantities of hard, round sand into fracked rock formations in order to hold the cracks open, like shoving a foot in the door. Railroad locomotives drop angular sand onto the rails in front of their wheels as they brake, to improve traction. Australia and India are major exporters of garnet sand, which is crushed to make an abrasive material used in sandblasting and by water-jet cutters. Foundries use sand to form the molds for iron bolts, manhole covers, engine blocks, and other cast-metal objects. I once visited a foundry in Arizona whose products included parts for airplanes, cruise missiles, and artificial hip joints, and I watched a worker pouring molten stainless steel into a mold that had been made by repeatedly dipping a wax pattern into a ceramic slurry and then into sand. The work area was so hot that I nervously checked my arm, because I thought my shirt was on fire. Factories that produce plate glass—by pouring thin layers of molten silica onto baths of molten tin—can be hotter.
In some applications, natural aggregate can be replaced by or supplemented with recycled materials, but the possibilities are limited. And efforts to reduce consumption are complicated by the fact that many environmentally desirable products and activities depend as heavily on aggregate as environmentally undesirable ones do: solar panels are made from silica and silicon; wind turbines are manufactured with foundry sand; autonomous electric vehicles need roads and highways, too.
Last summer, at a quarry in western Connecticut, I put my hand into a big pile of sand that was the pinkish-gray color of calamine lotion. In a couple of months, the pile was going to be trucked to New York City, eighty miles south, and spread on top of Wollman Rink for the annual Rolex Central Park Horse Show. (Afterward, the sand would be trucked back to the quarry, to be stored until the following fall.) Bill Stanley, a vice-president of the construction company that owns the quarry, told me, “We make a customized, proprietary blend of horse-footing sand, and we’re sending it all over New York State and out to the Rocky Mountains. People want it in Europe, too.” The color comes from a dye; fibres and other additives are mixed in as well, to create a material that is sufficiently yielding to protect the feet and legs of very large animals but firm enough to support running and jumping. (It’s too stiff for volleyball.)
There’s no single standard for equestrian sand; different producers have different recipes. The pile I stuck my hand into is known as a manufactured sand, because it was produced by crushing stone—in this case, dolomitic marble. The marble in the quarry is part of the Stockbridge Formation, which runs from eastern New York to Vermont. “You can’t really use it as building marble, because it’s too jointed,” Stanley said. “But it makes exceptionally high-quality sand. It’s all calcium carbonate and magnesium carbonate, and Portland cement chemically bonds with it. We sell it mostly for landscaping and for architectural concrete.” He drove me up a narrow access road to a spot overlooking the main pit. “We developed this quarry for sand,” he said. “Sand is something you’ve got to keep your eye on, to be sure you have a good, reliable source for the long term.” For many years, Stanley’s company bought large quantities of high-quality aggregate from a dredging operation off the southern end of Staten Island, not far from an entrance to New York Harbor, but that operation was shut down in 2015, amid concerns that the dredges were doing environmental damage to the seafloor.
One engineer I spoke to told me that transporting sand and stone for ordinary construction becomes uneconomical after about sixty miles, and that builders usually make do with whatever is available within that radius, even if it means settling for materials that aren’t ideal. In some places, though, there are no usable alternatives. Florida lies on top of a vast limestone formation, but most of the stone is too soft to be used in construction. “The whole Gulf Coast is starved for aggregate,” William Langer, the research geologist, told me. “So they import limestone from Mexico, from a quarry in the Yucatán, and haul it by freighter across the Caribbean.” Even that stone is wrong for some uses. “You can build most of a road with limestone from Mexico,” he continued, “but it doesn’t have much skid resistance. So to get that they have to use granitic rock, which they ship down the East Coast from quarries in Nova Scotia or haul by train from places like inland Georgia.” When Denver International Airport was being built, in the nineteen-nineties, local quarries were unable to supply crushed stone as rapidly as it was needed, so vast quantities were brought from a quarry in Wyoming whose principal product was stone ballast for railroad tracks. The crushed stone was delivered by a freight train that ran in a continuous loop between the quarry and the work site.
Deposits of sand, gravel, and stone can be found all over the United States, but many of them are untouchable, because they’re covered by houses, shopping malls, or protected land. Regulatory approval for new quarries is more and more difficult to obtain: people don’t want to live near big, noisy holes, even if their lives are effectively fabricated from the products of those holes. The scarcity of alternatives makes existing quarries increasingly valuable. The Connecticut quarry I visited is one of a number owned by Stanley’s company, and like many in the United States it’s in operation today only because it predates current mining regulations.
Stanley showed me an old tunnel, barely visible in the underbrush, through which miners in the nineteenth century hauled stone from the quarry’s original pit, on the other side of a tree-covered rise. (In those days, the principal product was lime, which was used to make mortar in the era before Portland cement.) The old pit was abandoned many years ago, and is now almost completely overgrown. “It looks like Jurassic Park,” Stanley said. The company is planning to resume excavation near that area, though, as other sources become depleted. Before the work can begin, a large colony of bats—which took over the tunnel when miners stopped using it—will have to be relocated to a cavelike bat hibernaculum, which the company will build on another part of the property, with guidance from the state’s Department of Energy and Environmental Protection.
Ten years ago, I spent a week in Dubai, which at the time was one of the fastest-growing cities in the world. Construction cranes and imported laborers were everywhere. The work went on all night, and the city’s extraordinary traffic congestion was continually being made worse by road-widening projects intended to relieve it. Exhaust from cars and trucks, in combination with wind-borne dust from the Arabian Desert and humid air from the Persian Gulf, formed a thick, phlegm-colored haze that made breathing unpleasant—an effect exacerbated by the ferocious heat. (Dubai gets so hot during the summer that many swimming pools are cooled, rather than heated.)
One day, I played golf with an Australian who worked for a major real-estate developer. The course, like Dubai itself, had been built on empty desert, and I commented that creating fairways and greens in such a forbidding environment must be difficult. “No,” the Australian said. “Deserts are easy, because you can shape the sand into anything you like.” The difficult parts, paradoxically, are the areas that are supposed to be sand: deserts make lousy sand traps. The wind-blown grains are so rounded that golf balls sink into them, so the sand in the bunkers on Dubai’s many golf courses is imported. Jumeirah Golf Estates—on the outskirts of the city, next to the desert—has two courses, Fire and Earth, both designed by Greg Norman. The sand in the bunkers on the Earth course is white (the most prized color for golf sand) and was bought from a producer in North Carolina. The sand on the Fire course is reddish brown—more like the desert across the road. Norman’s company bought it from Hutcheson, which mined it at its quarry in Ontario, sifted it to make it firmer than volleyball sand, kiln-dried it, dyed it, and loaded it onto a ship.
Unfortunately for Dubai’s builders and real-estate developers, desert sand is also unsuitable for construction and, indeed, for almost any human use. The grains don’t have enough fractured faces for concrete and asphalt, and they’re too small and round for water-filtration systems. The high-compression concrete used in Dubai’s Burj Khalifa, the world’s tallest structure, was made with sand imported from Australia. William Langer told me that other desert countries face similar shortages. “Mauritania is trying to catch up with the world,” he said. “They’ve got sand all over the place, but it isn’t good even for highway construction.” Stone is so scarce in Bangladesh that contractors commonly resort to making concrete with crushed brick.
When I was in Dubai, rich people from across the world were paying such absurdly high prices for its real estate that the government decided to create more of it. From a window in a restaurant on an upper floor of my hotel, seven hundred feet above the Persian Gulf, I looked down on two vast offshore land-creation developments: Palm Jumeirah and the World. Both are artificial archipelagos. From above, Palm Jumeirah resembles a palm tree with spreading branches, or maybe a trilobite fossil. The World consists of three hundred small islands arranged in clusters that (vaguely) suggest a Mercator projection of Earth. Creating so much artificial land required enormous shipments of quarried stone, from across the Emirates, as well as hundreds of millions of tons of sand, which foreign contractors dredged from the floor of the Gulf and heaped into piles. According to a U.N. report, the dredging “exhausted all of the marine sand resources in Dubai,” and also did extensive environmental damage. Seafloor dredging creates the undersea equivalent of choking sandstorms, killing organisms, destroying coral reefs and other habitats, and altering patterns of water circulation. In 2011, a British scientist who had studied the Dubai projects told Nature, “All the ecological trajectories are downhill.”
“Remember how nice things were before they made America great?”
Dubai’s archipelago developments were profoundly affected by the global recession. Palm Jumeirah survived, and today its curving branches—roughly a hundred yards wide and edged by narrow artificial beaches—are covered with double rows of multimillion-dollar villas, as well as hotels, clubs, and shopping malls. But the World remains undeveloped and has essentially been abandoned, as have two other sites that were intended to be bigger versions of Palm Jumeirah. It seems unlikely that anything significant will ever be built on them, although if construction picks up elsewhere they could conceivably serve as (phenomenally expensive) aggregate mines, since marine sand can usually be used to make concrete, as long as it’s been rinsed sufficiently to remove all the salt and other undesirable materials.
Hurricane Sandy, the most destructive ocean storm ever to strike the Northeast, made landfall on October 29, 2012, near Brigantine, New Jersey, a town on a barrier island just north of Atlantic City. The resulting water surge flooded streets, subway tunnels, and buildings in New York and its suburbs; the storm knocked out power, and did more than sixty-five billion dollars’ worth of damage in a dozen states. (Among other alarming effects, it created twenty-foot waves in the middle of Lake Michigan, six hundred miles to the west.) The devastation in places like Brigantine—and in the Rockaways, in New York—was especially severe. I visited Brigantine two years after Sandy struck, and saw damaged houses that had been raised onto elevated concrete-block foundations in the hope of protecting them from future storm surges. Houses were still awaiting their turn with booked-up contractors; one looked like a doll house, because an exterior wall was missing, revealing the rooms inside.
The barrier island on which Brigantine sits is part of a semi-continuous chain of skinny, shifting accumulations of sand that lie a short distance offshore along much of the Gulf Coast and most of the way up the Eastern Seaboard. Robert S. Young, a geology professor at Western Carolina University, in North Carolina, told me recently, “When people first settled this country, nobody built on the barrier islands. They were too stormy, and they weren’t good places to live.” Today, however, many barrier islands are densely covered with houses—the biggest and the most expensive of which often have the greatest exposure to ocean storms, since they’re the ones with the best water views. The rapid growth in construction has been driven by lax land-use ordinances, below-market flood-insurance rates, the indomitability of the human spirit, and, mainly, the willingness of Congress to cover much of the cost when the inevitable occurs. “The Feds have poured in money over and over,” Young continued. “Folks will say to me, ‘Gosh, Robert, people must be crazy to rebuild their roads and homes again and again, after all the storms,’ and my answer is ‘No, they’re making a perfectly rational economic decision. We’re the crazy ones, because we’re paying for it.’ ”
Congress responded to Sandy by passing the Disaster Relief Appropriations Act of 2013, also known as the Hurricane Sandy Supplemental bill. It allocated a little more than forty-nine billion dollars for a long list of relief efforts, including more than five billion for the Army Corps of Engineers. Much of the Corps’s money has been spent on dredging sand from the seafloor and piling it up on shorelines between oceanfront real estate and the water. “The federal government had been involved in similar projects over the past couple of decades,” Young said. “But the projects had become so expensive that money wasn’t really available anymore. Then, suddenly, after Sandy, they all became practical.” An executive of Great Lakes Dredge & Dock—the country’s largest dredging company, and the contractor on many Corps projects—told me that ships belonging to his company began restoring a storm-damaged beach seventy miles up the coast from Brigantine a week after Sandy. “That was actually a preëxisting contract,” he said. “But we really haven’t left New Jersey since then.”
This past October, I watched a Great Lakes crew working on Long Beach Island, a densely developed barrier island up the Jersey coast from Brigantine. The island is a little more than twenty miles long, and for most of that length it’s no wider than two or three residential blocks. The crew I watched was working on a beach in Harvey Cedars, a town near the island’s northern end. Two red-hulled dredging ships were anchored offshore—one in federal waters, three miles out, the other much closer. The far ship vacuumed sand from the ocean floor, fifty feet down, and when its hold was full it switched places with the near ship, which had pumped its own load into a submerged steel pipe that ran all the way to the beach. As the far ship filled, its hull slowly sank from view; as the near ship emptied, its hull slowly rose.
A dozen porpoises swam past, between the near ship and the shore. On the beach, a dark torrent of sand and seawater gushed from the open end of the pipe and through a cagelike screen—whose functions included filtering out unexploded surplus munitions, which the American military dumped in the ocean following the end of the Second World War. Dozens of wading gulls picked edible items from the slurry, and workers with bulldozers and bucket loaders shaped the pumped sand into an extension of the dune I was standing on. That dune, which rose more than twenty feet above the water, looked more like a levee than any natural beachscape. It was roughly trapezoidal in cross-section—a long, unbroken loaf of sand running most of the length of the island, with sprigs of beach grass growing in evenly spaced rows on top of the completed sections, like hair-transplant plugs. When the project began, some homeowners complained that the dune would block their view of the water—as was certainly the case in my ground-floor room at the Drifting Sands Oceanfront Motel, in Ship Bottom.
A woman watching the Great Lakes crew from the same spot told me that she owned one of the houses now protected by the dune. Her house was very large, and, like virtually all the houses closest to the ocean, it stood on what looked like a grove of buried telephone poles: a foundation made of wooden piles, whose purpose is to allow storm surges to pass under the habitable spaces. She said that the heavy machinery on the beach was making her whole house shake. That’s because vibrations were breaking the adhesion between the piles and the sand—an effect called liquefaction. Still, she said, the shaking didn’t bother her very much: “The spin cycle on my washing machine makes my house shake, too.”
Robert Young told me, “Storms are not a problem for barrier islands in their natural state. Think of the undeveloped portions of Fire Island. No one talks about beach erosion there, because in storms the beach doesn’t disappear—it just rolls landward. A storm will take sand from the front and blow it on top and across, and the island will grow on the back side. Barrier islands are dynamic systems, and they actually need storms, because plants and animals indigenous to the islands are adapted to them.”
The problems start when people begin to think of mutable landforms as permanent property. Building houses and creating artificial dunes to protect them are mutually reinforcing interventions, because the houses turn the dunes into necessities and the dunes make the houses seem rational. As in Dubai, the seafloor suffers. Offshore sand dredging has been described as “submerged, open-pit strip mining.” It directly kills organisms that live or feed on the seafloor, including sea turtles, and it stirs up clouds of fine particles, which can suffocate fish by clogging their gills. Young told me that most of the specific effects are still unmeasured and unknown, because the places from which sand is taken are hard to monitor. “They’re underwater and they’re three miles offshore,” Young said. “You can’t just send graduate students out there once a week to see how things are going.” Still, it was easy to tell that the dredges were having an impact: all those feasting gulls hadn’t gathered to eat sand. The Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, which is part of the Department of the Interior, funded surveys after Hurricane Sandy to collect core samples from the outer continental shelf. But the program’s purpose is to identify potential resources for beach nourishment, not to assess biological depredation.
I went back to the dune that evening. The Great Lakes crew was still there, a little farther up the shore, working under lights. The company’s dredges operate around the clock, seven days a week, all year long; they are expensive to run and leaving them idle is uneconomical. And the job is open-ended, since the artificial dune isn’t meant to be permanent: its purpose is to neutralize big waves by allowing them to consume it. The Corps expects to rebuild the entire system, from end to end, on a four-to-six-year cycle. The dredges I was watching were scheduled to move south, to Delaware, as soon as they’d finished on Long Beach Island, and then to begin working their way up the coast again. And then again, and then again after that—until either the money has run out or the ocean has risen too high to be held back by sand. ♦
This article appears in other versions of the May 29, 2017, issue, with the headline “The End of Sand.”
David Owen has been a staff writer at The New Yorker since 1991.Read more »