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They floated; they lived: Calm water does not mean safe water

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The surf off the Lifeguard Beach. The area circled shows the ‘calm’ water, which may seem OK, but is a rip current. Photo: C. Leinbach

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By Connie Leinbach

September on Ocracoke brings many late summer visitors, and although the paid lifeguards at the Lifeguard Beach are gone, the dangerous rip currents are not. 

With no lifeguards available to advise location or provide rescue, ocean swimmers must be more vigilant than ever about the frequent rip currents in the surf.

Ocracoke Island had two drownings this summer of swimmers in “rips,” and numerous rescues.

So, it behooves beach-goers to be extra vigilant while the water is still warm enough to swim in.

Islander Danielle Creeksong found this out Sept. 11 when she and her family watched three swimmers nearby swept out in a rip current that’s still off the Lifeguard Beach.

“Amazingly, the same rip current that hauled them out also saved them,” she said.

It was just past low tide, she said, when her son Chris Kosub and his wife, Lee, Creeksong’s daughter-in-law, who themselves were past the first breakers and on a sandbar, watched as a teenage boy wading in waist-deep water appeared to launch himself backwards, sailing out headfirst and belly-up, she said.

“Moments later, he was as far offshore as Chris and Lee were, but still moving rapidly,” she said. “Just as rapidly, he swerved in a tight semicircle and pulled himself up onto the same shoal they stood upon, only 15 feet further down. He seemed totally unconcerned.”

After looking more intently at the water, the Kosubs noticed a large rip current.

“But then, to their horror, they watched as the boy’s father and younger brother waded right into the center of it, totally unaware of what had just happened,” Creeksong said.

Within seconds the father and son were both knocked off their feet and sucked out headfirst and belly-up towards deep water.

“Just as they sailed past the sand shoal, the son began screaming and his father yelled for help,” she said. “But the strong surf at ripʼs edge forced first the father, and then the son with his assistance, onto the shoal.”

Once ashore, Creeksong and her group went over to talk with them.

“They had moved recently to North Carolina from California, and none in the family had ever encountered rip currents in the beach area where they frequently swam, which had a gently sloping bottom and no shoals,” she said.  “They had chosen to go in where they did at Lifeguard Beach because the water looked calmer there, but this is a common and dangerous mistake.”

The calm water was actually the rip current rushing back out to sea from the feeder zone into the rip’s neck, Creeksong said.

“My family and I gave as thorough of an education on rip currents as we understood, including having them stand still and assess the current near the shore,” she said. “They then chose a safer place to swim and reentered the water together.”

After that, Creeksong went up and down the beach to advise all folks about the rip in front of them.

“Not one person besides myself, my family, and the family of the ones pulled out had seen it happen, it was that fast,” she said. “One lady argued with me at first, certain that it could not be dangerous because she did not see a ‘warning flag.’”

Two families said they would move further up beach to find a ‘calmer’ area.

“So I began educating again because the water that had just sucked out the individuals appeared calm,” Creeksong said.  

Islander William Howard, a surfer, recently noted that the ocean “is just crazy this year. I’ve never seen it like this before.”

Creeksong said she recently talked with some people from the Cape Lookout area in Carteret County.

“Just like us, they also have an unusual rip current issue caused by a close-in sand shoal that won’t go away,” she said. “Two deaths occurred there that they knew of with lots of saves.”

On Thursday, Lee and Chris Prout of New York City were swimming beyond the trough at the Lifeguard beach, though they did not venture in above their heads.

Lee and Chris Prout of New York City talk about rip currents.

Lee and Chris Prout of New York City talk about rip currents. Photo: C. Leinbach

A former Nags Head resident and surfer, Chris said he and his wife had experience with Outer Banks surf and were being cautious.

Lee, who was once caught in a rip current that pulled her under, said she is always wary of sand bars “because that’s what creates rip currents.”

As the two studied the water, Chris noted the trough in which other bathers were swimming.

“It’s not a classic rip current,” he said about this area of water that had seen a lot of rescue action while the lifeguards were on duty.

And he knows whereof he speaks.

“As a surfer, I look for rips to get out into the ocean quicker,” he said.

For a different view on how to escape a rip (which is markedly similar to what saved the father and his two sons), read about a man who jumps into rip currents for research purposes:

https://www.outsideonline.com/2089696/everything-you-know-about-rip-currents-wrong