OCEAN CITY — Years of work and tens of millions of dollars have built a wide beach in front of the Ocean City Boardwalk, protecting properties from storms and adding plenty of space for beach blankets each summer.
But for the members of the Ocean City Fishing Club, the drawbacks were obvious.
Because of the beach replenishment projects, the 635-foot fishing pier at 14th Street barely extended beyond the water’s edge. At dead low tide, there was about foot of water at the end of the pier.
“We figured we would wait through a couple of storms and it would be back the way it was. But that isn’t happening,” said club member Frank Pizzutilla.
Under a 50-year commitment that was part of Ocean City’s first federal beach replenishment project, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers routinely contracts for new projects to replenish beaches, with the most recent beach project completed in 2020. Erosion is a constant force in the ocean, but it was not going to return the pier to deep water anytime soon.
Instead, the club decided to extend the pier farther into the water, raising about half a million dollars from donations, fundraisers and club funds to add more than 100 feet to the end of the pier.
That project is expected to be completed by the end of March. Before work could begin, the plans needed the OK from the city, the state Department of Environmental Protection and the federal Army Corps of Engineers.
“It took about two years to apply for and to get all the approvals necessary,” said Greg Borak, who handles publicity for the club, which he said is the oldest fishing club in continuous operation in the United States.
High winds, storms and other bad weather delayed work on the project over the winter, Borak said. But according to Pizzutilla, it needed to happen.
“We will be in the water now,” he said. “It will be a lot safer.”
Before the extension, club members could still fish off the end of the pier when the tide was in. But with the water’s edge that close, there was a danger of interacting with swimmers.
“It was getting bad,” he said. Last summer, because currents had scoured a deep hole on that block, the lifeguards moved their stand closer to the south side of the pier. The fishing club told its members they could only cast from the other side.
Before the first Army Corps beach project in Ocean City was completed in 1992, high tides would often reach the Boardwalk downtown. Even after that, the pier was well out into the water.
“When I joined the club in ‘08, I used to fish from the middle ‘T,’ about halfway out where the shed is,” Pizzutilla said. The spot he’s describing is now over dry sand.
About five years ago, members started talking about extending the pier, but that was put on hold until Pizzutilla became president a couple of years later. Current president Joe Hughes said Pizzutilla organized the efforts, led the fundraising and shepherded the project. Hughes said that after he became president, he had asked Pizzutilla to continue to lead that effort.
The club will likely hold a grand opening event when the work is done, but members are still deciding what that will look like and whether it will be open to the public. A lot will depend on the status of the pandemic, Hughes said. Last year, the pier shut down entirely for several months, and then allowed limited access.
“We normally have member parties and events. We haven’t had them for over a year now,” Hughes said. “We’re trying to keep everybody safe.”
Most years, the club holds two events inviting the public out onto the pier, Borak said, a tradition members hope to renew in the future. At one point, visitors were asked to bring nonperishable food for the Ocean City Food Cupboard, he said.
The club has about 210 dues-paying members and some “lifetime” members.
The open houses have been a good way to connect with the community. Previously, he said, it could be difficult for someone to even find out how to join. He found out how to join by asking someone at a local bait shop. Today, the club has a website and a Facebook page. Currently, there is a waiting list to join, Hughes said, and new members need to have two current members sign off on their application.
The annual membership fee is $250 a year. But the initiation fee is a steep $1,500 up front. Hughes said a commitment to fishing is a key requirement.
“We’re looking for men and women who are willing to be involved in the club. One of the main things is we don’t want people to join just to use the parking lot to go to the beach,” he said. There is a parking lot for members’ use, a major perk in the summer. Members are not guaranteed a parking spot, Hughes added.
There are multiple fishing spots and piers into the back bay waters throughout the area, but few oceanside piers.
Since the closure of the fishing pier at 59th Street in the 1980s, the Ocean City Fishing Club’s pier is the only one in the city. There is also a private pier into the ocean in Avalon and Margate, as well as the Ventnor City fishing pier, which allows public access for sightseeing and fishing for a fee.
The Ocean City Fishing Club dates from 1913. The first pier was completed at the current location in 1915, but destroyed in 1919, according to Hughes. It was rebuilt again, only to be devastated in the March 1962, storm, which Hughes said left little more than a pile of toothpicks.
The current pier was completed in 1968, but saw damage again when struck by an errant barge in the 1990s, and damaged by another storm in 1992.
A story published about the club’s centennial said the first woman member joined in 2002, although long before that women fished from the pier if their husbands were members.