As the heavy tourist season gets underway and the official start of summer approaches, it can be hard to remember that the beach isn’t all sun and sand, fun and games.
It can also be a dangerous place if you aren’t aware or aren’t paying attention to Mother Nature.
This week is Rip Current Awareness Week, and as Steve Pfaff with the National Weather Service in Wilmington, N.C., says, “rip currents are equal opportunity killers, impacting all genders and ages.”
So far this year, there have been 37 U.S. surf zone fatalities, 26 of them due to rip currents, according to data collected by the NWS and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
Since 2000, there have been 105 fatalities in North Carolina (59) and South Carolina (46) due to rip currents.
And over Memorial Day weekend alone in the Myrtle Beach area there were three reported drownings and a report of a near-drowning.
Erick White, 20, of Sumter, died of an accidental drowning in the ocean; Young Gwon Go, 58, of Charlotte, N.C., also died of accidental drowning while in the ocean; and Eduardo Gutierrez, 41, died of accidental drowning in the Intracoastal Waterway.
Rodney Smith, 28, of Detroit, said during Memorial Day weekend that he felt himself being pulled out to the ocean, but was pulled to safety by three strangers from Denver, N.C.
“I was out there swimming for fun, and the next thing a wave took me under and I was farther out and farther down than I expected. ... I can’t even tell you what happened, all I know is we were having fun and the next thing you know it just went south,” said Smith after the incident.
Most victims of rip current drownings are males between the ages of 31 and 50, according to Pfaff. He also points out that 1 in 4 rip current drownings involves the person who is attempting to rescue another.
The S.C. Sea Grant Consortium Coastal Processes program is in the process of implementing a rip current awareness program called “Break the Grip of the Rip” that was developed by the NOAA National Weather Service and is being conducted in partnership with the Charleston and Wilmington offices of the NWS.
The program helps beachgoers identify the signs of rip currents and how to respond if you find yourself caught in a rip current.
The website has photos, local beach forecasts, online training and more, including important facts to know, like the chances of drowning at a beach with lifeguards are 1 in 18 million, according to the U.S. Lifesaving Association.
Included on the site is a section for kids and teens that offers tips, videos, games and activities to help younger beachgoers familiarize themselves with the dangers of the ocean.
NOAA defines a rip current as “channelized currents of water flowing away from shore are surf beaches.”
Rip currents can form at:
▪ breaks in sandbars
▪ near jetties or piers
▪ near cliffs that jut into the water
To help raise awareness about Rip Current Awareness Week and the Break the Grip of the Rip program, Pfaff answered a few questions about beach safety and the program:
Question | Can you talk a little bit about the Break the Grip of the Rip program?
Answer | It is a program designed between the United States Lifesaving Association, Sea Grant, and the National Weather Service to promote rip current awareness. The team looked at designing a website to house rip current information, develop an easy to understand sign/poster, and share in a unified message to the public that foster education and awareness. The strength of rip current outreach is through partnerships between these agencies and many more, including our media partners.
Q. | What resources does the program provide beachgoers?
A. | The program enables beachgoers with where to find rip current forecast information and with information that will arm them a better understanding of what a rip current is, and most importantly how to get out of one.
Q. | So, what should someone do (or not do) if they find themselves caught in a rip current?
A. | First and foremost, be able to recognize that you are in a rip current. During extreme events you can feel yourself being carried away through the surf. However, most times you may only notice that you are getting tired and not getting any closer to the shore.
If either occurs, then swim to the side to get out of the rip. Most rips are not wider than 30 feet. Swim to the side then at an angle back to the beach. It is easier to do this if you have a flotation device, so you should always enter the surf with some sort of flotation in case you cramp up or get caught in a rip.
If you can’t swim to the side, then use all your energy to stay afloat and raise your arm and wave for help. Stay as calm as possible. If you get tired you will go under.
Q. | What’s the most important thing people need to remember about the ocean?
A. | There are many hazards in the ocean but the most common one they may face is a rip current, based on USLA statistics. The ocean is not a swimming pool and ... taking a few moments to learn about rip currents may help save a life, especially the life of someone they love dearly.
Q. | Do you have any tips for parents who are trying to teach their children about ocean safety?
A. | Visit the NOAA rip current website and learn together. There are many tips on how to spot rips and what to do if one is encountered. The more people we can teach about rips, the better. Take the time to learn and be a force multiplier – share what you learn with family and friends. We need to work together as a community to truly be a Weather Ready Nation!
Q. | Can rip currents be spotted from the shore? How can beachgoers learn to identify them by sight?
A. | Yes, they can, but it is easier from a higher point, i.e., the top of a beach access path. They look darker than surrounding areas in the surf ... you may see the water flowing seaward, and they are often in areas with little in the way of breaking waves compared to the waves spilling onto adjacent sandbars. There are good examples on the website.
Q. | What if someone sees another person caught in a rip?
A. | If you see someone caught in a rip, seek help from a lifeguard or call 911. Direct the person in trouble to swim to the side. If you have no choice but to attempt a rescue, then only enter the surf with a flotation device. If you don’t, then you may get into trouble as well. Flotation devices like body boards, rafts or surfboards buy you time if you get tired. In addition, the person struggling in the surf may accidentally push you under as instincts to get air and breathe take over their actions.
By the numbers*
59 | rip current deaths in North Carolina
46 | rip current deaths in South Carolina
9 | the age of the youngest rip current victim in the Carolinas
74 | the age of the oldest rip current victim in the Carolinas
1-2 feet per second | the average speed of a rip current
*Data since 2000, according to the National Weather Service of Wilmington, N.C.
Beach flag rating system
Two red flags | No water activity allowed
One red flag | Public encouraged to stay out of the ocean
Yellow flag | Public encouraged to swim ONLY in front of posted lifeguard towers
Green flag | Public encouraged to swim in front of posted lifeguard towers
Purple flag | marine creature warning, such as man-o-wars, jellyfish, blue buttons or sea nettles