The East Coast Sunrise Group (clockwise) includes Jett Frieder and his golden doodle Romeo, Rich Fitzgerald, Ian Levinson, Jane Bartley, Tony Fierro, Margie Richards and Robert Claveau. BELOW RIGHT: Shellman’ Ron Smaha and ‘Bucket Boy’ Brad Barnes. Photos by Tim Stepien/The Coastal Star
They call themselves the East Coast Sunrise Group, a self-explanatory name for a dozen or so strangers who’ve become fast friends because of a shared passion for watching sunrises at Boynton Beach’s Oceanfront Park in Ocean Ridge.
“I’m the chairman of the board — because I provide the beach chairs,’’ Tony Fierro, a Naples, Italy, native from Boynton Beach, said as he sat in the predawn darkness one December morning with Robert Claveau, a retired air traffic controller from Quebec City.
The others would be along soon — Jane, Rich, Ian, Nichole, to name a few. They’ll grab a folded beach chair from the stack Fierro leaves on the boardwalk east of the parking lot, then make their way to the sand as the darkness over the ocean slowly gives way to light.
“We meet here every single morning. We never miss a day,’’ Fierro said. “If it’s raining, we meet at Starbucks.’’
It’s been that way since about 2019, when Fierro showed up for sunrise one morning and befriended Rich Fitzgerald of Boynton Beach. The next day, they showed up again and met Jane Bartley.
Before long, other sunrise watchers were joining them, from nature-loving snowbirds to strangers battling personal demons.
They all exchange phone numbers and text each other in advance about weather conditions or if they won’t be able to make it.
“We have grown together as a beach family and the sunrises have shaped me as a completely different person,’’ said Nichole Angone, 36, a recovering addict who said she has been sober since she first met the group on the beach 2 1/2 years ago.
“This group has really shaped me for who I am,’’ she said. “To go and watch these sunrises together has been so spiritual. It’s like our church.’’
One morning before dawn a couple of years ago, the group saw Ian Levinson struggling in the darkness on two crutches. They took him in and gave him a chair. Now, he’s a regular.
“It’s the best way to start the morning. We enjoy the peace and quiet and beauty,’’ said Levinson, 56, who said he suffered a spinal injury in a car accident the day after he graduated from high school in southern California.
New members are always welcome. But fair warning to the ladies: Fierro can be a flirt.
“We start the day with a happy heart, meeting friends and watching the sunrise,’’ Claveau said. “We all sit around gabbing, then at one point we all shut up and watch the sunrise.’’
He was right: The morning a reporter visited, the group was chatting away about the World Cup and the Miami Dolphins and the muffins Margie Richards just brought from Publix when suddenly a streak of orange burst over the horizon. The group, sitting in a half oval, went silent and took out their smartphones to capture the first glimmers of the day.
“It’s like watching a painting that changes every minute. It’s just spectacular and it’s different every morning. And we bust each other’s chops,’’ said Fitzgerald.
“It’s the best, cheapest entertainment you can get,’’ he said. “The sunrises are breathtaking and it’s great people-watching.’’
And they have nicknames for many of the people they watch — “Shellman,’’ “Bucket Boy” and other beach walkers and joggers who may not formally sit with the group but will stop by for a minute every morning to pay their respects.
“Shellman” is 90-year-old Ron Smaha of Ocean Ridge, who strolls the shoreline at dawn in search of shells that his wife uses to make wreaths.
“Bucket Boy” is Brad Barnes of Boynton Beach, who said he takes a sunrise photo every morning so he can text it to a friend who is dying of cancer. When he arrives at Oceanfront Park, he grabs one of the plastic buckets provided by the Beach Bucket Foundation and collects trash along the shoreline.
“Those guys are a hoot,’’ Barnes said about the East Coast Sunrise Group. “They even have a gang sign.’’
He demonstrates by sliding the three middle fingers (the rising sun) of his right hand up the side of his horizontal left palm (the ocean horizon).
Once the sun has risen, they say their goodbyes and go their separate ways to jobs and families and commitments.
Until tomorrow morning.
“It’s a breath of fresh air,’’ said Jett Frieder, who brings Romeo, his golden doodle. He laughed and said the sunrises offer another big perk: “Nothing bad happens this early in the morning.’’