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By Connie Leinbach
Islanders are working with the National Park Service for better education with visitors about rip currents along Ocracoke’s beaches.
Last year was an unusually high season for rip currents and fatalities (eight) along the Cape Hatteras National Seashore, which included two drownings on Ocracoke.
Although it’s unknown what the surf will be like this year, last year, all along the island, sand bars were closer to shore than they usually are creating a strong lateral current that caught many people unaware.
“Usually the sand bars are twice as far out,” said Tom Pahl, Ocracoke’s county commissioner who attended a meeting with Boone Vandzura, Cape Hatteras chief ranger, Stacey Sigler, Cape Hatteras safety manager, Sandy Yeatts, an island EMT, Corey Cutright, a park ranger, and islanders Danielle Creeksong, Ruth Fordon and Sundae Horn.
Last August, Fordon’s sister-in-law and niece were in knee-deep water off Ramp 67 when they stepped into a hole and got pulled under and out by a rip current. Though Fordon’s niece got back to shore, her sister-in-law did not survive.
When Creeksong was at the Lifeguard Beach area in September, she watched a man and his two sons get sucked into a rip current, though they all managed to get back to shore. She then counseled this California family—who had never even heard of rip currents—about the water.
It seems there are two kinds of rip currents to beware of: Ones that pull people out to sea from which a person swimming parallel to the shore can break free, and those that drag people under water, which is what happened with Fordon’s family members.
When a call comes over 911 for a rescue, all island emergency and law enforcement personnel respond.
“The amount of rescues off of Ramp 70 last year was ridiculous,” Cutright said. “It was the most in my five years.”
The National Weather Service makes rip current danger predictions each day.
“Out of eight fatalities in the waters off the Seashore, three happened on days when high rip currents were forecasted,” Sigler said.
In an Observer story published last year, Pahl, who swims almost every day when it’s warm and who has successfully escaped rip currents, said that in the last few years he has studied the water before going in and has come up with some markers for safe and dangerous water.
Perhaps a video of Pahl showing the various water patterns would be good along with information of what a bystander can do.
Cutright suggested distributing rip current information when people purchase beach-driving permits.
Additional ideas included signage at all the ramps, yellow flags on high-risk days, extra help with a roving truck on the beach.
Horn suggested lifeguards be employed from May to October because the water is still warm and people do swim in the off season.
Sigler, in an email after the meeting, said the Seashore will do the following educational efforts this year: enhance media, website and park newspaper messaging; educational signage at beach accesses across the Seashore, at ORV offices, in campgrounds and at highway entrances to the Seashore; create volunteer opportunities to assist with public education through a Beach Ambassador Program; and rip current demonstrations with our lifeguards on the beach.”
“A clear takeaway from this meeting was if all make little efforts, we can make a big difference in educating visitors to help save a live,” Vandzura said. “Every brochure we pass out, every sign we put up, every person we contact on the beach, every person that asks a life guard a question, and every person that looks up rip currents on the internet — -this is what will make a difference, so that a vacation does not end in tragedy.”
This will be a multi-phase process to explore ideas to focus on in 2018 and beyond, Sigler said.