As he walked in darkness along the wet sand, Matt Adams could barely hear the Atlantic surf that has been churning for days like an angry wash cycle. He didn't notice the bells from the Funcade Casino or the Karaoke strains from the nearby boardwalk. The only sound Adams heard in the bright yellow cups that covered his ears was the hum of his metal detector.
"If this storm took eight to 10 inches off the beach, that would be good," Adams said as he waved the yellow and black rod over the sand in front of him.
Surfers are not the only people who welcomed the tumult of Bonnie along the East Coast this week. Metal-detecting enthusiasts, who are growing in number along the Delmarva coast, have been eager to pick through deposits left by big waves and sand eroded by the storm. In contrast to local officials, who worried about the undoing of beach replenishment projects, beachcombers such as Adams were invigorated by the storm's effects.
"Sad to say, metal detectors love big storms," said Andy Nunez, president of the Shore Seekers Artifact and Recovery Club in nearby Salisbury, sounding a little sheepish.
Adams, 28, who lives in Salisbury and runs his own computer consulting company, spent two nights this week hunting for treasure here. He trudged the beach in his black surf shoes with his waterproof detector and headset, listening for the high-pitched hum that promises reward.
"Where else can you walk along and dig money out of the ground?" asked Adams. The take from the two nights was less than $4 in change, a clothespin, part of a buckle and several pieces of burned wire, apparently from July 4 sparklers. Undeterred, Adams planned another session Friday night..
He said he doesn't care about the image of metal-detectorist-as-nerd. "People who think that don't really understand what it's about. This is an adventure. You never know what you're going to find, what someone else has lost."
In a city that has 10 miles of beaches and 200,000 tourists this week, the chances of things falling out of pockets, purses and beach bags are pretty good, Adams said. He considers Ocean City to be "metal-detecting boot camp" because it gives him plenty of practice "discriminating" -- the skill that tells an experienced "metal detectorist" if a signal means junk or something worth digging up.
Since he took up the hobby in June, Adams's beach forays have turned up about $90 in change, 10 silver rings, one pewter ring, several Matchbox toy cars and one gold ring with fake diamonds.
Part of the challenge of beachcombing in Ocean City is the fact that the city cleans the beach every day with six modified potato pickers that sift the top layer of sand. It's the only beach community on the East Coast that cleans beaches by machine, said Hal Adkins, public works director. The machines collect jewelry, watches and coins, lots of coins. The machine operators are allowed to pocket the change; one employee made as much as $240 one summer, Adkins said.
"This is the best thing I've ever tried, hobbywise," Adams said. "It's like fishing, except with fishing you can sit in a boat all day and get nothing. Here, you get outside, you get exercise and you always find something."
Still, his biggest find so far is an 1838 large penny that he unearthed in his aunt's front yard in Salisbury.
Interest in the hobby is growing along the Delaware-Maryland-Virginia coast, where old shipwrecks are plentiful and stories about sunken treasures abound, said Jackie Childers whose family owns Sea Shell City in Fenwick Island, Del.
Dale Clifton, who gives classes in metal detecting and owns the Discoveries from the Sea Shipwreck museum above Sea Shell City, said the recent mania around the Titanic has sparked interest in buried treasure and metal detecting. "Everybody from 6 to 60 has dreamed of finding a buried treasure or gold from a shipwreck," Clifton said. "This is a chance to be a modern-day Indiana Jones without the risk."