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Rip currents, not sharks, are the biggest dangers at the beach

Anatomy1

Rip current graphic courtesy of ripcurrents.com. Used by permission.

By Connie Leinbach

Sue Dayton will never forget how terrified she was when she was caught in a rip current in 1995 off the coast of Mexico.

Dayton, who owns Roxy’s Antiques on Ocracoke, didn’t know how to get out of it.

“All I could think of, when I was going down was, ‘Damn! I spent my entire life climbing mountains, falling in crevasses, getting caught in avalanches, etc., and I’m gonna lose my life drowning in the ocean!’” she said.

She shudders at the remembrance.

Somehow, the current released her on her third time down.

“Then some young girls saw me and pulled me up on the beach,” she said shaking her head.

Despite this, Dayton has not lost her love of the ocean, having moved to the island last year and set up shop.

But she was lucky to get out of the rip current.  Some do not, and in recent years the drownings that have occurred on Ocracoke have often been due to rip currents.

Dr. Stephen P. Leatherman, aka “Dr. Beach,” America’s foremost expert on beaches, and who named Ocracoke Lifeguard beach the best beach in 2007, has a video on his website where he asks beach-goers what is their greatest fear in the ocean.

“Sharks,” say those he interviews, but Leatherman corrects that.

“Although estimates vary, rip currents are responsible for approximately 150 deaths every year in the U.S. and likely thousands worldwide,” according to his website.

Rip currents are like rivers in the sea, Leatherman says. They often look like an area of calm water between waves, but they are actually funneling out through a hole in the sand bar and into deep water.

In time for Rip Current Preparedness Week, which kicks off June 7, this video and more details can be found on his website at www.drbeach.org. In addition, “Dr. Beach” just named the Cape Hatteras Beach the #5 best beach for this year.

During the warm months, the National Weather Service issues daily surf zone forecasts for local beaches.  

This website also has a lot of information on rip current safety, how to spot them and what to do: http://www.ripcurrents.noaa.gov/index.shtml#

 The NPS has the same rip current diagrams posted at the Lifeguard and Pony Pen beaches.   

Beach-goers need to know what to do when unexpectedly caught in a current that’s rushing out to sea.

The following are some safety tips, courtesy of www.ripcurrents.com:

–Swim at locations with lifeguards.

If you are caught in a rip current:

–DON’T PANIC, which wastes your energy and keeps you from thinking clearly. 
–Don’t attempt to swim against the current directly back to shore. 
–Swim parallel to shore until you are out of the current as the offshore flow is restricted to the narrow rip neck. 
–Float calmly out with the rip if you cannot break out by swimming perpendicular to the current.  When it subsides, just beyond the surf zone, swim diagonally back to shore.
–If you are on shore and see someone in distress, alert lifeguards and call 911. If you go in the water, take flotation devices for yourself and the person or persons caught in the rip.

Published in 2015