MYRTLE BEACH — Dennis McCormick leans his head back. The sun's on his face, waves are crashing a few feet away, and, for the first time in years, he's made it to the beach.
McCormick, 61, of Buffalo, N.Y., had a severe stroke three years ago that weakened the left side of his body. He couldn't have made it on the sand without a modified wheelchair delivered for free by the city of Myrtle Beach. It has large, balloon-like gray tires and an elevated blue seat. His feet, clad in New Balance sneakers, sat about a foot off the ground.
"Let me touch the beach. Give me some sand," McCormick said.
His daughter, Sarah Swartz, scooped up a small pile of soft, beige sand and put it in her father's hand. He slowly let the grains trickle through his fingers.
"It liberates you," McCormick said of the chair. "It makes you feel great."
Because of requirements in the Americans with Disabilities Act, many local and state beaches have wheelchair ramps at a portion of their beach walkways, though building ramps that also comply with state regulations protecting sand dunes can be a challenge.
But getting onto the beach from there is another challenge because the narrow wheels on most wheelchairs can't navigate sand. Modified wheelchairs are one of the adaptations offered by South Carolina's coastal communities to ensure all visitors are able to enjoy the beach. Some beaches up and down the state's shore also use special mats so that people who use wheelchairs can roll on top of the sand.
Charleston County installed a portable access mat atop the sand last month at Folly Beach County Park, as well as opening restrooms, a shower and a changing area that are all wheelchair accessible, Sarah Reynolds, a spokeswoman for Charleston County Parks, said.
Reynolds said the features were inspired, in part, by the park's Wheels to Surf clinic, which gives people who use wheelchairs the opportunity to learn to surf. A Wheels to Surf clinic is also held in North Myrtle Beach.
Beach mats simply aren't an option in places like Sullivan's Island, however, where the town offers modified chairs instead. Town Administrator Andy Benke said putting down any surface on the sand is challenging because the beach is constantly growing, as tides push more sand to the shore from the north.
"If I have those mats out there, I've got to have somebody out every day, clearing the mats, lifting them up, shaking the sand out of it," Benke said.
The chairs have other limitations. Bill Botten, of the U.S. Access Board, said beach wheelchairs can pose a problem for people who have to sit in custom-made seats or don't have use of their arms.
"You can't propel it independently. You have to have additional people there to help. That isn’t always possible," Botten said. "It’s a big baby stroller."
Botten, who uses a wheelchair, said the modified chairs can also be problematic because there's a limited supply. That's part of the reason guidelines for federal beaches require a path, at least every half-mile, that goes all the way to the high tide line.
The path can be permanent or removable. That way, people who can't easily switch into a borrowed chair are able to enjoy the water.
While the federal guidelines are considered best practice, Botten said it's unlikely state and local beaches will be legally held to them any time soon because the Trump administration has restricted the amount of regulations federal agencies can publish.
There are other challenges, too. The beach tracking chairs can be costly — as much as $2,500, according to Capt. Joey Crosby of Myrtle Beach police.
Isle of Palms City Administrator Linda Tucker said the city doesn't own its own modified wheelchair. Requests for the chairs there are so infrequent, she said, that it's cheaper for IOP to rent a chair from a local private company when necessary.
They're difficult to maintain. In 2016, Myrtle Beach briefly toyed with the idea of scrapping the chairs altogether. After public outcry, the city reversed its decision and ordered 12 new wheelchairs.
Leslie White, of Johnson City, Tenn., said she was glad the city decided to keep offering the chairs for free. They enabled her grandmother, Daisy Presley, to roll on the sand in one of her last visits to Myrtle Beach, 10 years ago. Presley died in 2015 at 95.
Now, as her mother ages, White said she's glad the chairs are still around.
"If my mom gets to that point, I would want to have that available," White said. "We are water and sand people, and it would bother me if I took her (to the beach) and couldn't do that for her."
Reaching the sand involves a few hiccups for Jimmy Moore, who lived in Myrtle Beach until 2009 and was paralyzed from the shoulders down in a 2011 car collision. He now lives in Decatur, Ga., and uses a chair he can operate independently by breathing into a tube.
That means Moore needs assistance when he's in a beach wheelchair. He said rules barring tents in Myrtle Beach and elsewhere limit the amount of time he can stay on the sand because a typical umbrella doesn't cover the special wheelchairs.
Moore said for the most part, his experiences in Myrtle Beach and on other South Carolina beaches have been relatively easy. The most important part is being able to spend time on the sand with his 3-year-old daughter, Spencer.
"Being able to make it out to the beach at times when she’s out there, I mean, that means the world," Moore said.