LONG BEACH — They come to the beach laden with diaper bags, playpens and inflatable toys.
Back in the old days, some of them say, they sunned themselves less than a mile away at Horny Corner, the stretch along Alamitos Bay where the hip singles hang out.
Now they drag their squawking children and the considerable accouterment of their stations to this secluded spot on Appian Way. It's known as Mothers' Beach, and to the mothers of Long Beach it is a balm.
"I feel safe here," said Judy Haines, 29, relaxing in the warm sand of a recent sunny afternoon with her frolicking 7-year-old son, Clifford, safely within sight. "It's the only place in the area where there aren't many waves."
Added Rex Orr, 38, the divorced mother of two teen-agers who has frequented the spot for 15 years: "You get your tan here first, then you go to Horny Corner."
With the possible exception of Cherry Beach at the end of Junipero Avenue, local lifeguards say, this half-mile stretch of sand at the marina--formally called Marina Park--is the most popular beach in the city. On a typical summer weekday, according to George Gjersvold, head lifeguard here, the place attracts between 2,000 and 3,000 people, about 85% of them mothers with children.
Water Is Calm
They come, Gjersvold says, because the water is calm and the distance from their cars not great. They come because the spot has a higher concentration of lifeguards than any other beach in the city and because it is small enough to easily keep track of children. Finally, he says, they come to socialize with other mothers while their children play with other children.
"I remember coming down here when I was a little monster," said Gjersvold, 23.
Until 1967, according to lifeguard Capt. Randall Davis, the place was a barren, undeveloped stretch. Then the city moved the sand in, erected the restrooms and planted grass for a picnic area. Gradually, Davis said, the popularity of the nearby Colorado Lagoon shifted toward the new Marina Park as a new generation of mothers sought its safety and seclusion.
Though detractors sometimes scornfully refer to it as "stretch-mark beach," Gjersvold said, lifeguards try to discourage that. "It makes people think there is nothing but a bunch of fat old ladies here and that isn't true," he said. "This is a good crowd."
But the distinct makeup of the crowd does present some special lifeguarding challenges, he said. Because there are so many children, Gjersvold said, Mothers' Beach averages 18 rescues a week, far more than other beaches of its size. And because so much of a lifeguard's job involves human relations, he said, the beach tends to attract a higher percentage of female lifeguards than do most other beaches.
"You find lost kids and you just ask them to give you a hug and they stop crying," explained Carol Cottrell, 25, who has been a lifeguard here for five summers. "The guys tend to use their authority too much--we're less threatening."
One summer she volunteered to work at one of the city's regular oceanfront beaches thinking the stint would give her some good experience. But she gave it up, Cottrell said, because it turned out to be so boring compared to watching the kids at Mothers' Beach.
"It was too quiet," she said. "Out there I'd get maybe five rescues in an entire week; here I can get that many in a day."
One of the most common rescues performed at Mothers' Beach, according to Gjersvold, is what lifeguards have come to refer to as the "pickup" maneuver, required when an overconfident toddler wanders too close to the water's edge and falls face down into less than a foot of surf. "You don't even get your ankles wet," the lifeguard said. "You just run down there and try to beat mom."
No Child Has Drowned There
So far, he said, no child has ever drowned at Mothers' Beach.
And indeed, most of the mothers lounging there on a recent weekday weren't thinking much about rescues and drownings. Instead, their conversation turned on the things mothers often discuss when they get together: what to feed a 2-year-old, the best kind of diaper to buy and the latest shenanigans of their children.
"Robert likes to stick his feet in the water," said a beaming Laura Rivers, reclining on the beach with her 8-month-old son.
Lately, regulars say, the beach has been attracting patrons from outside the area. One busload last week, in fact, embarked from Temple City on a city-sponsored excursion to Belmont Shore, but got lost en route and ended up at Mothers' Beach.
"After two hours (in a bus) anything looked good," said Carla Moon, who took the excursion with her four children, ages 1 1/2 to 9.
But she liked this beach, she said. And by the end of the day, she was beginning to sound like someone who in the future might even forgo the shine of the shore for the mothers of the marina.
"I'd definitely come here again," she said. "If I could ever find it."