Beach officials warn of rip currents ahead of busy August season
There have been hundreds of rescues along North Carolina’s beaches this summer, and safety is top of mind for emergency responders . . . but warnings are not always heeded by those having fun in the sun. Most of those rescues were in response to rip currents that pulled swimmers out to sea.
On July Visitors to Emerald Isle's East access point most often cited sunscreen, shade, weather and knowing where a lifeguard is as how they prepare for a day on the sand. Only one, 14-year old Ella, said they checked rip current conditions.
“I'm the one who taught them how to spot a rip current,” Ella, who also educated her family on rip currents, said.
A rip current is a strong flow of water from close to the beach out about 100 yards into the ocean. It’s like a fast-flowing river that cuts through ocean waves. William Matthias is the fire chief for Emerald Isle. He’s also in charge of the ocean rescue teams.
“Those calm areas where it's seems like it's a great place to set up, it's actually a hidden danger for rip currents because they're so powerful," he said. "They actually knock the waves down."
Rip currents are the primary reason for rescues. Kenzie McClarney is a lifeguard for the Town of Emerald Isle.
“Rip currents definitely are probably the primary reason of us getting into the water and people overestimating their abilities," McClarney said. "The ocean is not a pool, and it's not a lake.”
In July, there were nearly 200 rip-current related rescues in North Carolina. Carolina Beach made 61 alone the Saturday before July 4th a weekend with a high risk for rip currents. That same weekend, a man from Sanford died at Fort Fisher trying to save a mother and two children caught in a rip current.
A quarter of drownings in the ocean are good Samaritans, trying to save others. Beach officials try their best to inform people abo ut the risk of rip currents. Like how to spot them . . .
McClarney says the tale-tell signs are areas where fewer waves are breaking and there's deep, foamy water with white wash over the top.
When there’s a high risk for rip currents, Emerald Isle and other beaches on Bogue Banks put out red flags to warn visitors, and they pick up patrols along the beach, blasting public service announcements from a red truck. They’ll post on social media, too, and put out billboards. Matthias is sure the message gets through.
“Not confident at all in today's time. So today we live in a push media notification time where people have to have things sent to their cell phones or sent to that tablet and unless it pops up and it Dings where it buzzes, we're just not paying attention to it," Matthias said. "Trying to relate that information to people visiting our area is difficult, so when I get asked that question of 'how do you think your message is reaching people,' I always am very humble when it comes to it.”
Matthias says even the best swimmers can't beat a rip current.
“Even the best Olympic swimmer can't swim against the rip current," he said.
As for how to stay safe if you’re caught in a rip current, lifeguard Kenzie says there’s two options.
First, relax and signal for help. If you're able, you can try swimming parallel to shore to get out of it. Second, if you not a very good swimmer, floating on your back until the rip is another option.
“Don't panic. That rip current is only going to take you so far," she said. "Remain calm, float on your back."