Editor’s note, June 13, 2018: Three men died in the last two weeks while swimming off the Cape Hatteras National Seashore, two on Hatteras and one on Ocracoke off Ramp 70. (See story here. )The story below was first published in 2016, but its message still applies. The numerous sandbars along the Ocracoke waters create ripe conditions for deadly rip currents. The Observer urges all visitors to take some time to learn about them and what to do if caught in one. Several stories about rip current safety are on this website.
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, 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” and a strong lateral current at water’s edge
Bottom is “hilly,” rising and falling unpredictably