shows a seemingly calm beach at sunrise, but there may be rip currents present
Photo credit: Ken Lund, Flickr Creative Commons

By Catherine Clabby

Sean O’Gorman learned first hand this spring how rip currents can transform fun in the surf into a lethal hazard at a North Carolina beach.

shows a telephone pole with a rip current warning sign on it
Rip Current Warning, Cape Hatteras Light Station (Lighthouse), Cape Hatteras National Seashore, Buxton, North Carolina. Photo credit: Ken Lund, Flickr Creative Commons

Last April the upstate New York firefighter was relaxing with family at an Emerald Isle beach when two teenage sisters in the water started yelling for help. A rip current had pushed them offshore.

Trained just weeks before in swift-water rescue techniques, the Oswego Fire Department member swam through choppy waves to the girls, hooked their  boogie boards to his feet, and towed them to safety.

“It was a nice thing to be in the right place at the right time,” O’Gorman said.

Not everyone is so lucky.

About 100 people drown in rip currents each year nationally, according to the U.S. Lifesaving Association. In contrast, just an estimated five people worldwide died from shark attacks last year.

chart of rip tide deaths that took place in 2017 in North CarolinaOnly California and Florida reported more rip current drownings than did North Carolina between 1999 and 2013, according to National Weather Service data. Rip tides were blamed for 12 deaths at beaches here in 2017.

Frightened and struggling swimmers require rescuing from rip currents frequently along this state’s coast, sometimes by untrained individuals putting their lives at risk. Dozens of rescues were tallied at North Carolina beaches in just the first week of July.

Researchers, lifeguards, coastal town governments, even rental property managers, have tried to educate beachgoers about this peril for years.

map of US with numbers filled into each state for the number of rip current deaths taking place there
Source: National Weather Service

“Many of the tourist offices will have brochures available, so do the rental companies. But if you are on your way to beach you are not going to pick up a brochure and read it,” said Spencer Rogers, a rip tide and coastal erosion specialist with NC Sea Grant program.

So communities frequently post warning signs along public accesses to a beach. Nonetheless, many people remain unaware.

Natural hazards

Rip currents form nearly every day along North Carolina’s 170-plus miles of barrier islands comprising the Outer Banks, Rogers said.

“On most days no one would notice,” he said, because only a fraction are powerful enough to push swimmers away from the shore.

shows two black and white photographs with images of ocean beachs with rip currents offshore
Image from page 80 of “Coast Watch” (1979), published by NC Sea Grant in 1979. “We used to believe that the formation of rip currents was relatively spontaneous and correlated with individual events such as large storms,” said University of Florida researcher Bob Dean in the publication. “Now, we’re starting to believe rip currents persist for longer time periods at various strengths, sometimes as long as several weeks or months.”

Incoming waves often build the currents by depositing water between sandbars and the shoreline. In time, portions of those sandbars collapse and water rushes through the resulting gaps, away from the beach.

These ephemeral current channels can be as narrow as 10 or 20 feet or much wider. They can be strongest when waves hitting the shoreline are higher and more frequent than average, say after a storm passes by offshore.

A big part of the trouble is that they don’t always look like trouble, Rogers said. Water within these currents can appear calmer than water to either side.

“The waves can look milder and smaller because they are not breaking on the sandbar,” Rogers said. “That gives the exact wrong message to beach users. That’s where they want to put down beach blankets.”

Knowledge is safety

Many North Carolina organizations have worked for years to educate people about this danger at our beaches.

“You name it and we’ll print a rip current warning on it,” Rogers said, including lifeguard stands, auto bumpers, frisbees, rental house refrigerators and garbage cans.

The Hatteras Island Rescue Squad, for one, holds weekly information sessions on risks from rip currents and other shoreline hazards every Monday into August. The National Weather Service produces rip current forecasts for shoreline in North Carolina and other states.

Surviving a rip current:

The first step is to say calm. That sounds simple but isn’t when suddenly water is pushing you from shore. But there is no fighting a strong rip current.

Swimmers should instead try to move parallel to the shore until they cross the edge of the current. Then they can turn toward shore.

If that is not possible, swimmers should float or tread water to save energy, turn toward the beach and yell for help.

Not everyone is at equal risk of harm. “The drowning and death statistics show a much higher risks for younger males, 16 to 30,” Rogers said. “Inexperience is not always involved. It’s surprising the number of stronger swimmers who get in trouble.”People who understand these currents advise beachgoers to swim only when lifeguards are present. They also urge people to swim with flotation devices, like the boogie boards used by the teenage sisters O’Gorman rescued.

Rip currents can be dangerous to people out of the water too. “About 25 percent of North Carolina deaths in last few years have been better swimmers attempting rescues. Someone sees a child or a friend or even a stranger and they attempt to rescue them,” Rogers said.

Tossing a flotation device toward someone in distress after someone has called 911 is a safer alternative, he said.

O’Gorman, the firefighter who muscled in the teenagers at Emerald Isle, agreed that not everyone should attempt what he did.

Because he had very recently had the right training, he knew he had the skill and the physical stamina to help.

Before he tried, he approached the teenagers’ distraught family. They told him they had called 911, which was just right. Given how frightened the girls were, however, he went in.

“You have to assess your own ability,” he said.

And that assessment needs to be right.

a list of what to do if you see someone in a rip current.
Source: National Weather Service

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Catherine Clabby

Catherine Clabby (senior environmental reporter) is a writer and editor. A former senior editor at American Scientist magazine, Clabby won multiple awards reporting on science, medicine and higher education...

One reply on “Rip Current Safety in NC”

  1. As of July 27, 2018 NC has already had 12 deaths due to rough surf conditions or rip currents this year. Many of these fatalities have occurred at beaches where no lifeguard is ever present and there are not even flag warning systems in place to alert beachgoers. It is time for NC and its’ coastal towns to do more to protect the tourists whose tourism dollars these towns rely on. Education state-wide, lifeguards, flag-warning systems, and flotation device stands at beach access points (for untrained bystanders who will attempt a rescue regardless) will go a long way towards saving lives at our beautiful beaches.

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