So far this season, more than 70 ocean rescues at Kure Beach have been attributed to rip currents. In May, a man died after being rescued from the coast of Oak Island, which does not have lifeguards on its beaches.
With the unpredictability of these “indiscriminate killers,” N.C. Gov. Pat McCrory, in an effort to maintain beach safety, proclaimed the week of June 7 to June 13 as rip current preparedness week.
According to the U.S. Lifesaving Association (USLA), 80 percent of all ocean rescues are related to rip currents. In 2014, Wrightsville, Carolina, and Kure beaches reported 506 rescues due to rip currents. According to Daniel Russell, supervisor for Kure Beach Ocean Rescue, the reported number fluctuates from year to year because there are many factors that can affect ocean current–weather chief among them.
Dave Baker, Ocean Rescue Director for the Wrightsville Beach Fire Department, recalled 212 ocean rescues in one day, with in a single incident. Baker said that illustrates how unpredictable and dangerous rip currents are.
The USLA describes rip currents as “powerful, channeled currents of water flowing away from shore.”
They typically extend from the shoreline, through the surf zone, and past the line of breaking waves. Some beach goers will confuse backwash or undertow for for a rip current.
“They are more like rivers in the sea, with currents that can pull swimmers away from shore and move as fast as 8 feet per second,” Baker said. “That’s faster than an olympic swimmer. It’s not the rip current that will kill you; the current themselves aren’t dangerous. They’re dangerous because if you’re unaware you’re in one, it’s too late. If people don’t know what to do, they panic and become exhausted.”
While it can be difficult for the average beach goer to identify rip currents from shore, they can been spotted by looking for clues such as a break in the incoming wave pattern, a channel of churning choppy water, an area of notable difference in water color and a line of foam, seaweed, or debris moving steadily seaward, according to the USLA.
The USLA recommends the following if one is caught in a rip current:
- Remain calm to conserve energy and think clearly.
- Don’t fight the current. Swim out of the current in a direction following the shoreline and when out of the current, swim toward shore.
- If you’re unable to swim out of the rip current, float or calmly tread water. When out of the current, swim toward shore.
- If you are still unable to reach shore, draw attention to yourself. Face the shore, wave your arms, and yell for help.
- If you see someone in trouble get help from a lifeguard. If a lifeguard is not available, have someone call 911. Throw the rip current victim something that floats and yell instructions on how to escape.
- Check water conditions and the beach forecast. Swim at locations with lifeguards.
The Wilmington branch of the National Weather Service continually updates a rip current forecast for the North Carolina coast, according to meteorologist Steve Pfaff. Local fire departments use green, yellow and red flags at lifeguard stations along the beach to indicate calm, choppy, and hazardous conditions and a black flag will be hung or flown from all lifeguard stations when off duty.
At Wrightsville and Kure beaches, lifeguards are on duty 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily from Memorial Day to Labor Day. Carolina Beach staffs lifeguards from 10 a.m. to 4:45 p.m. Monday through Thursday, and 10 a.m. to 6:45 p.m. Friday through Sunday. Brunswick County beaches do not have lifeguards on duty, though some towns, like Sunset Beach, have a beach patrol.
For more information about rip currents, visit the USLA website.