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Islander experienced with rip currents offers some tips

ocean 2016

Up until Tuesday, when it calmed down for the first time in weeks, according to Avery Graves, head lifeguard, the ocean in front of the lifeguard stand has been the site of several rescues. Above, Graves, enters the water in late July to assist a swimmer.   The water above shows some of the signs Tom Pahl has observed for dangerous surf and enumerates below. Photo: C. Leinbach

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By Connie Leinbach

After Tom Pahl helped two off-island swimmers out of dangerous surf two weeks ago at the airport ramp beach, he decided he would carry a boogie board in his truck to be better prepared for future emergencies.

Pahl, an islander who swims almost every day during warm weather, said he has twice been caught in dangerous rip currents but was able to swim out of them himself.  Three other swimmers in the Outer Banks surf in recent weeks weren’t so lucky.

Since July 21, three swimmers have gotten caught in rip currents and lost their lives.  The first occurred on July 21 when a 67-year-old man got caught in a rip current off the airport access area (Ramp 70), and the other was a 71-year-old man July 22 off of Sailfish Drive in Frisco.  Deborah DeBarth Fraga, 64, of Houston, Texas, sister of islander Ken DeBarth was the most recent victim on Aug. 11 off Ramp 67 here.

Following the recent drownings, Pahl decided to write down some observations he has made about how to identify the danger signs that accompany rip currents.  

“Rips are very hard to see,” Pahl said.  “But the danger signs are obvious if you know what to watch for.” 

He created a list of five signs of safe water and five signs of dangerous water.

Since posting the lists last week on Facebook, he said he has gotten positive feedback from people as far away as California, Massachusetts and even the south of France.

“I’ve been in plenty of rip currents that I haven’t been able to see,” Pahl said. “And when it’s a beautiful sunny day it doesn’t look threatening, but it sure can be.”

Especially, now, he said.  

Conditions all along the Ocracoke beaches have been ripe for rip currents.

“The ‘lagoon’ effect is currently playing out and it’s dangerous,” Pahl said.  “There is a broad sandbar all along the shore which has formed close enough in that it captures lots of water which pours into the ‘lagoon.’”  

Add breaking waves into that mix.

Then, as that trapped water seeks an outlet, it creates strong fast currents which most times run parallel to shore, Pahl said, but sometimes cuts through the sandbar and flows out in a strong current.

Pahl urges all beach-goers to carefully observe the water before venturing in.

“I am heartbroken by the recent drownings,” Pahl said.  “Take time to assess the conditions before you go in and if there is any doubt, keep your feet on the bottom, keep your feet on the ground.”

In the hope that they may help swimmers along our shores to identify the danger signs of rip currents, we print below Pahl’s lists: 

GOOD WAVE PATTERNS:  

Waves approach and break parallel to shore.
Waves come in at a steady pace 
Waves are spread apart by an even distance.
Waves break on the far sandbar, re-form and break again on shore
Bottom is smooth and deepens at a steady rate

DANGER SIGN WAVE PATTERNS:

Waves approach at an angle to shore
Waves approach from two angles and criss-cross
Waves approach at different speeds and overtake each other
“Far sandbar” is close in, creating a “lagoon” at water’s edge
Bottom is “hilly,” rising and falling unpredictably

Please be careful. Take time to assess the conditions before you go in and if there is any doubt, keep your feet on the bottom; keep your feet on the ground.

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5 replies »

  1. This is great information! Thanks for talking with Tom and printing it. Every single one of those “Danger Sign Wave Patterns” have been happening for weeks until just recently.

    On Wed, Aug 17, 2016 at 9:56 AM, Ocracoke Observer wrote:

    > Pete Vankevich posted: ” By Connie Leinbach After Tom Pahl helped two > off-island swimmers out of dangerous surf two weeks ago at the airport ramp > beach, he decided he would carry a boogie board in his truck to be better > prepared for future emergencies. Pahl, an islander” >

    • Yes. All the information says that swimmers need to stay calm and try to swim parallel to the shore–as diagrams show–but it seems that if someone is caught in a current with waves crashing over them, swimming out is still a hard thing to do… We will keep looking into it and will update when we can. Thanks for your comment!

  2. Just this afternoon, all five danger signs were present at the airport ramp beach! I went in and there was a VERY strong current. I kept my feet on the ground. I can’t tell you how to get out of one…but I’m hoping folks will take seriously these danger signs and play it safe!