Illustration: Sam Woolley (GMG)
There's still one month till summer, and if you've been listening to your more sun-sensitive friends at the beach, or had to go out to buy aloe on one too many occasions, it might have occurred to you to invest in a beach umbrella.
Follow your intuition on this; a beach umbrella is a great investment in your skin's future. But you may have also noticed that at least once a weekend there's someone running down the beach, chasing an open umbrella that has caught a strong breeze and is suddenly on the lam.
Sure, it makes for some spectator entertainment on a nice beach day, but it's also incredibly hazardous. Just a few months ago in Ocean City, Maryland, a woman was pierced in the chest by a flying beach umbrella (she's OK!). A week before that, on the Jersey Shore, another woman was impaled in the ankle.
Point being, there's a clear safety hazard that can be attributed to people not knowing how to plant their damn umbrellas in the sand. Fortunately, a summer spent working as a cabana boy at a beach club has given me the tools and tricks to securely planting a beach umbrella. Here's what you need to know:
Find the Right Umbrella
Half the job is done before you even get to the beach, when you're shopping for that initial umbrella purchase. This might sound crazy to have to say, but make sure you're buying beach umbrellas for going to the beach. That means no patio umbrellas! They may look roughly the same size, or big enough to provide good shade, but they're much heavier, and significantly more hazardous.
There's a reason they're built to be mounted into tables. On the other hand, you don't want one of those umbrellas with a pole the size of a small child's wrist. It should seem sturdy enough to hold up against decent wind, because if it somehow snaps, you not only have a flying hazard, but even worse, a potential for an entry wound! There are pros and cons to each type of material you choose for the pole, but it's generally agreed that wood is durable and won't rust, while aluminium is more lightweight, which makes it more ideal for travel, and it's likely to show any wear prior to breaking completely.
Plastic/PVC can work well, too, as long as the diameter of the pole is at least an inch wide, and the plastic feels strong. Business Insider provides a review of their highest recommended umbrellas here, and while you can spend anywhere from $14 - $271 on a beach umbrella, their best rated overall umbrella is the Tommy Bahama 2.13m model at under $68.
Once you've narrowed it down to the sturdier umbrellas, the next step is to check the bottom of the pole. The pole should end in some sort of point to make it easier to dig into the sand. Some poles even have a threaded end, like a drill, which is all the more effective for digging and planting.
Flat bottoms are definitely the least effective for digging, though of course, they're also the safest when it comes to potential impaling. You'll just want to shell out an extra $14 - $27 for a sand anchor - a small mount with a threaded end for digging into the sand - in addition to your umbrella. Once it's in, you can stick the pole right into hole in the top and secure it using the sand anchor's screw.
How to Stake Your Claim
The biggest mistake people make when setting up camp is assembling the umbrella, opening it, sticking it in the sand, and considering the job done. You're not garnishing a piña colada! If you want it to stand up to strong gusts of wind, it will take a little more elbow grease. Here are the tried and true steps for getting that umbrella in securely:
Before you get started, make sure the umbrella is closed! Nothing is harder than trying to secure something in the ground when you have a giant sail attached to it. In fact, most umbrellas come in two parts, so you can leave the part with the actual umbrella detached while you focus on getting the bottom end into the ground.
Once you know this trick, you will be shocked at the number of people you see at the beach who don't follow it and wrestle with an umbrella that is literally about to take off. Thus begins your induction into the elite club of competent beachgoers.
- Drive the pole into the ground, and back yourself into a lunge, throwing your weight against the pole. You should look like those statues of soldiers planting a flag in the middle of a battle.
Rock the pole back and forth, occasionally alternating with wider circles, and maintaining your body weight on the pole toward the ground. Switch to narrower circles to dig the pole in deeper. You should be creating a funnel in the sand. The goal here is to get down to that nice, wet sand that's harder packed.
Note: If you do have a sand anchor or a drill end on your pole, that's great — but stick to the process. Make that hole big and move as much sand as you can. You can use the drill part to dig in even deeper for extra grip after you can't rock the pole any more.
- Once you think you've gotten the pole as deep as it can go, which should be at least a foot or two down, hold the pole steady while you use your feet to fill in the hole you've dug with the sand you cleared away. Pat the sand down as much as you can, and put anything heavy, like bags or a cooler against it as extra ballast.
- Now you can attach the top half and open the umbrella. The opening of the umbrella should be anticipated as the final flourish in a job well done, as when the waiter pulls the silver dome of the serving platter to reveal your main course. Yes, now that you ask, I would consider the setting up of a beach umbrella to be pretty akin to fine dining.
Pro-Tips for Umbrella Maintenance
You may now know how to secure your umbrella, but it's just as important to know how to keep your umbrella safely in place. Some things to keep in mind:
- Now that the umbrella's in the sand, don't move it! You may want to keep adjusting with the angle of the sun, but all you're doing is destabilizing the work you just put in. You can get an umbrella with an adjustable head, or an even more reliable method is to adjust yourself instead! Your beach towel is much easier to move than the umbrella you just spent so much time driving into the ground.
- Don't play with the sand around the pole. If you have little ones and beach toys, keep them at a nice distance from the pole, so digging in the sand doesn't inadvertently loosen all the hard-packed sand that's helping to keep your umbrella in place.
- When planting, don't go for hard angles. Not to throw shade, but some tipsters out there will argue for putting your umbrella in at an angle against the wind, so it will "drive it" deeper into the sand. That sounds good in theory, but wind changes, and the advice to keep checking the direction of the wind and adjusting for it works great for sailors, but not for people who came to the beach to relax, play in the water, or nap. You're also reducing the amount of shade you can use throughout the day as the sun moves.
- If you leave your encampment, close your umbrella. It will prevent the wind from loosening it, or even worse, sending it flying when you're not there to mind it. Trust me, your towel and bags won't miss the shade.
- While you shouldn't keep readjusting your umbrella, you should definitely check in on it once in a while, especially on a windy day. Nothing is as brutal as Mother Nature, and even the best-planted umbrella can loosen. Periodically give the pole a shake to see how loose it feels. If there's too much movement, you'll want to reset the pole in the ground and pack the sand tighter. And of course remember to close and disassemble the umbrella first!
As a pro at umbrella installation, you'll be able to maintain the life of your umbrella, and prevent yourself from embarrassment, anxiety, and maybe even a lawsuit down the road. But more importantly, don't hoard this info to yourself - help your neighbours if you see them struggling, for the sake of everyone's internal organs!