A hot month of May that burned up the record books ended on a cool and wet note yesterday as thousands of vacationers left the beaches early, only to get caught in rolling backups that stretched up to 20 miles, officials said.
The most troublesome bottlenecks came around Easton and Cambridge, where traffic lights along U.S. 50 - the main route between Ocean City and the Chesapeake Bay - led to the miles-long slowdowns. By late afternoon, traffic was stop-and-go between Wye Mills and Easton.
"I think, given what happened with the weather, people scooted out earlier than usual," said David Buck, a spokesman for the State Highway Administration. "We had very, very minimal delays on Friday and Saturday. But it's obvious they're all coming home now."
Traffic also was heavy leaving the Delaware beaches. Route 404, which runs from Delaware through Caroline and Queen Anne's counties to U.S. 50, had rolling backups of between six and seven miles all afternoon. But traffic seemed to move smoothly by the time drivers reached the Bay Bridge, where no toll is charged for westbound vehicles and officials reported few delays.
Ocean City Mayor James N. Mathias estimated that about 200,000 people were in town for the traditional kickoff of the summer season. On its busiest summer weekends, the city of 7,500 full-time residents will balloon to 350,000.
Mathias was philosophical about the weather: "We have our sunscreen and our sweat shirts ready to go. It goes both ways. That's the chance you take. But it was a good weekend and it's going to be a good summer. You can feel it."
The mayor called Saturday picture-perfect, sunny with a gorgeous blue sky - weather that beckoned thousands to the beach, but relatively few into the water. The ocean temperature was in the upper 50s.
18 people rescued
The Ocean City Beach Patrol rescued 18 people from the water Saturday and three on Sunday, when the skies were overcast and fewer people took to the water. No drownings occurred. The beach patrol said it didn't let people get too far out before reining them in.
"People get a little overconfident starting out a new year," said Beach Patrol Capt. Butch Arbin. "They haven't been in the ocean playing. They're a little out of shape. They're thankful to have us come get them."
Business owners said they were pleased with the weekend crowds. Rob Cole, owner of Atlantic Stand, which sells hot dogs, hamburgers and french fries on the Boardwalk, said the city has been graced with sunny spring weather that's attracting more customers, compared to the rainy weekends last year.
"For the month of May, we can't complain about the weather down here so far," Cole said. "We've had gorgeous weather."
Business was bustling at Tony's Pizza on the Boardwalk over the weekend, but it slowed as the rain began to fall yesterday.
"When it rains, people aren't going to walk on the Boardwalk," said owner Tony Russo, who described business as "very good" for the weekend. "When it stops raining, we'll do business."
Not a sellout
The weekend wasn't a sellout for accommodations in the beach resort, but the number of tourists usually doesn't pick up until later in June, said Donna Abbott, a spokeswoman for Ocean City.
Abbott said tourists were leaving the city at a staggered rate yesterday. "Some people are ready to go the moment the first showers hit, and others take their time," she said.
More to visit later
Officials were confident visitors would be back during the summer, which is supposed to be warmer than average after a May that was one of the hottest on record. The average temperature at Baltimore-Washington International Airport for the first 30 days of May was 69.9 degrees, making it the third-hottest since recordkeeping began in 1871, according to the National Weather Service.
Mathias, the Ocean City mayor, has a less scientific forecast. He said he hosts an open house at City Hall every New Year's Day. Last year, it was pouring rain for the open house, and the season turned out to be one of the rainiest on record.
This year on New Year's Day? It was 60 degrees and sunny.