Erode to Knowledge


The life of Dr. Beach is not always glamorous. When he’s not rating the best surf or advising millionaires about where they should build their showy oceanfront mansions, he’s often just plain Stephen P. Leatherman, scientist, chasing after clues or reading about the days when oxen, not celebrities, tramped through the Hamptons.

On a recent day in his office at Southampton College, the nation’s best-known coastal erosion expert stares at a photograph of a man on a Bridgehampton beach pointing at strangely shaped pockmarks and thick jagged lines in the sand. Nearby are two other clues for Leatherman: One is a 30-year-old article from the now-defunct Bridgehampton News about the discovery of wagon trails on salt marshes off Ocean Road. The other is an ancient, rotting book with a chapter about how Hamptons farmers nearly a century ago abandoned the use of oxen, which had been brought to the East End by the colonists.

This is the perfect mystery for Leatherman, who’s spending a year on the East End courtesy of a group called the Eastern Long Island Coastal Conservation Alliance to lead a long-term study of beach erosion.

In the Hamptons, of course, “conservation” may mean five new subdivisions instead of 10. An anonymous donor gave $100,000 to start the project, and according to the organization, the rest of the funding will come from the “private sector.” Although Southampton College is committing resources to the project, Leatherman’s salary is being paid by the alliance. Samuel Swint Jr., a Southampton real-estate agent representing the alliance, refuses to say how much that is. Leatherman won’t reveal how much he is making, saying that he got “a proportion” of the $100,000 but certainly “not all of it.”

Swint says that the Board of Trustees is currently being formed, and that its members will not include developers. “We have no agenda,” he insists. “We are only assembling the facts. We will make no recommendations.”

Leatherman’s aware of how touchy the issue of further development is in the Hamptons. “The moment you make a recommendation, they’re going to say you’re biased,” he says. “This is a politically charged issue. We want to let the facts speak for themselves.”

Leatherman’s regular job is director of the Laboratory for Coastal Research and International Hurricane Center at Florida International University in Miami. But in recent years, thanks to savvy and witty self-promotion, he’s become Dr. Beach, an expert who rates America’s sandy playgrounds, in books and online. He should enjoy his time on the East End: Dr. Beach’s current rankings list East Hampton Beach and Westhampton Beach as the 12th and 13th best, respectively, in the nation.

It’s not a surprising profession for Leatherman, who has noted that, as a boy, he had the biggest backyard sandbox in Charlotte, NC. All those years of playing in the sand have taught Leatherman that, to understand what a beach will look like in the future, you first have to understand what it looked like in the past.

Here’s how he weaves a history based on the three clues: “The colonists used the oxen to go out there and gather up and cut up what they call the marsh hay,” says Leatherman. He looks at the photograph of the old man. His identity is not important. The marks in the sand are.

“The oxen had huge hooves, which are these things here,” he says, pointing to the pockmarks. “And that’s a wagon trail,” he adds, tracing the lines. “So what we know is that they went through there with oxen and their carts. The salt marsh is spongy and they sunk right in it. Then what happened is a couple of hundred years later the dunes have migrated…and now because of erosion the trail is being exposed.”

Leatherman adds, “There’s irrefutable evidence at this beach that there’s been erosion, and we can even put a timeline on it. We know for a really long period of time that these animals were used, and therefore the beaches have moved back this much.”

For Leatherman, it’s an important discovery in his treasure hunt for old photographs, land surveys, maps and documents to help him understand coastal erosion in the Hamptons.

Discovering where the beach is eroding seems like a logical idea, but the research is believed to be the first time someone has actually looked at what the Hamptons’ beaches were like before celebrities, camera crews and self-possessed millionaires arrived on its sands.

“This is a very interesting shoreline, and there are a lot of things we still don’t know about it,” says Leatherman. “What are people going to do about it? First, we’ve got to understand it. That’s the first thing, and that’s the level we’re at now. We’re trying to understand the nature of this beach, the nature of this erosion problem. How big is it? Is it everywhere?”

Not all the news is gloomy. Since the project began in June, Leatherman says, researchers have already seen indications that beaches in Amagansett, East Hampton and elsewhere are stable, if not building up. “There are a lot of things unknown, and that’s what we’re here for,” he adds. “There are a lot of questions and not a lot of answers.”

Leatherman has spent many hours looking for material at local historical societies and at documents from volunteers who have lived in the Hamptons their whole lives and have seen the coast erode before their eyes. Or from people who think they have useful information.

Last week, that was William Swan, an 83-year-old attorney who owns quite a bit of property in Quogue. He has some maps that he thinks Leatherman might be interested in seeing. “That’s what he says,” Leatherman says. “I guess we’ll have to see.”

Leatherman and his aide, Doug Christel, meet up with Swan to look at his papers, but Swan can’t immediately locate the material and they all wind up going out to eat.

It turns into a very slow-speed chase after information. “We’re not going to get those maps out of him,” Leatherman mutters out of Swan’s earshot, laughing nervously. “It may take several visits.”

Soon Christel departs to report to work at his real paying job at a landscaping company, while Leatherman and Swan sit and talk. Evening falls. They eat lobster for dinner, agreeing to meet again. Yes, the life of a beach scientist can really be tough.

Research Lisa Chamoff