Patricia Armstrong and Bob Kohl with the support beam for the Bass River Beach giant umbrella. Wicked Local photo by Conor Powers-Smith

By Conor Powers-Smith
Posted Dec. 9, 2014 @ 7:00 am

Visitors to Bass River Beach in South Yarmouth will notice a new feature next summer: a giant blue umbrella permanently fixed in the sand. The new structure will be difficult to miss, measuring 20 feet in diameter, providing a large circle of shade for beachgoers throughout the season.

The shade structure is the result of a partnership between the town and The Glenna Kohl Fund for Hope, a charitable group dedicated to providing shade for lifeguards and others who spend extended periods of time exposed to the sun, as well as spreading awareness about the dangers of melanoma—the most dangerous form of skin cancer—and funding research into treating or curing the disease.

That disease claimed the life of the fund’s namesake at the age of 26, spurring her parents, Bob and Colleen Kohl, to found the organization. As Glenna battled melanoma, she also took up the cause of educating people about the dangers of prolonged exposure to ultraviolet rays from the sun and tanning beds.

“In the last few years of her life, she got very involved in it,” said Bob Kohl. “We’ve kind of carried on that tradition of what she started.”

After Glenna’s death, her parents began raising funds to install shade on lifeguard chairs, beginning at Dowses Beach in Osterville, where their daughter worked as a lifeguard for five summers. “That’s where it all sort of started, on the lifeguard chairs there,” Kohl said. “The focus has always been on what ways can we bring shade and sun protection.” Other Barnstable beaches followed, along with locations in Sandwich and Mashpee. The Kohl Fund also provides free sunscreen at many beaches.

Yarmouth’s beaches already provide shade at their lifeguard chairs, however, forcing the town, and the Kohl Fund, to get creative. “The Kohls were looking for a new opportunity, and we came to this concept,” said Yarmouth Parks and Recreation Director Patricia Armstrong.

Several structures were considered. “People love that design of a tiki hut, with the thatched roof, but we just knew that we couldn’t keep the maintenance up on that,” said Armstrong, adding that such structures would be at risk during storm surges. “We couldn’t build little huts. They’d become projectiles.”

The umbrella concept met the criteria of maximum shade and minimum upkeep. “People love to go to the beach, but they can’t sit all day in the sun,” said Armstrong. “We were looking at what we could put up that was going to have minimum maintenance, and was going to be sturdy enough to withstand public exposure.”

The distinctive structure is the first of its kind on the Cape. “It’s been proven in other parts of the country, it just hasn’t taken off up here yet,” said Armstrong. “No one’s used them up here. This is kind of a first.”

Similar shade structures are common in coastal areas of Florida and the Carolinas, Armstrong said, as well as the southwest; if they can withstand the extreme weather of those places, they can likely last on the Cape. “We know that it’s engineered to withstand up to 60 mile-an-hour winds,” she said. “We want it to be an attraction and an amenity, not a hazard.”

The umbrella’s central support beam, set in a concrete footing, is already in place at the beach. The detachable arms, and the canopy itself, will be added in the spring. Those parts will likely be removed around Columbus Day each year, then reattached some time in May. The arms and canopy can also be removed in case of severe weather during the summer, to minimize wear and tear.

The distinctive structure should get people talking, Kohl said, which could lead them to discussions of the Kohl Fund and its message. “That’s a benefit of it.” The group has gained momentum since being founded in 2009, with regular fundraisers and awareness events. “It’s growing. People don’t want to leave, they want to keep it going.”

The structure will also serve to honor another melanoma victim, longtime Selectman Jerry Sullivan, who died from the disease in 2012. Assuming permission is granted by the Board of Selectmen, the structure will be dedicated in Sullivan’s name in the spring.

If the umbrella serves its purpose, more could find their way onto Cape beaches, despite the structures’ significant cost; the umbrellas run between $6,000 and $7,000, with installation approximately matching that. In this case, the Kohl Fund purchased the umbrella, while the town handled the installation.

“If it works well, and people really think it’s a good idea, and we can raise the money, we’ll keep putting them up,” said Kohl.

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