See Editor’s note following this letter
On Sunday, Aug. 5, on Ocracoke, I was caught in a rip current. I’m in my 60s and have a fair amount of experience boogie boarding all over the N.C. coasts.
We were at Lifeguard Beach. Thanks to signs in parking lots all along the island, I knew there was a risk of rip currents. The red arrows in the graphics on the signs show where the currents are strongest, and what direction they go in. Definitely something to avoid.
So, when I looked out at where the waves were breaking, I saw they looked like long breakers to the right, long nice ones to the left, and some choppy stuff right in front of the lifeguard stand. I wanted to stay away from the chop, so I headed to my left. Not because I thought I was avoiding danger, just because I wanted a better ride. Unfortunately, I thought I could angle toward the nice waves by taking a shortcut slightly near the chop, just to the left of the lifeguards. It turns out the chop was the uppermost evidence of the rip current–right in front of the lifeguard stand. Who’d have thought?
My very first short ride pushed me over toward the choppy patch and then pulled me into the hidden current. I caught my footing on a sand bar, but my next step off it and I was carried out to where it was really hard to get back. I was amazed by how easy it was to get caught!
After trying to force my way back to land and getting really tired, I decided to try to stay on the boogie board and catch my breath.
Meanwhile, to my great confusion, the lifeguards were whistling at me. Were they telling me to avoid the rip current? Too late! Was a shark coming – try harder? Were they telling me to wait a minute, they’d get me a towline? I had no way of knowing. So I found myself becoming more and more worried and confused, along with being out of breath.
What’s a rip current like?
What is it like being in the rip current? I had imagined it would feel like a tug and I’d know what was going on. Then I could do what I’d always been told: Try not to fight it, keep close to the surface, and then head to the side – what could be simpler? But all I felt were waves crashing in the direction of shore, but not resulting in any shoreward motion. And the shore kept getting farther away, unless I worked hard to stay put.
The waves just kept crashing on top of me, but never moving me forward. How odd! Turning sideways and pulling toward the side left me vulnerable to being overturned by waves, which was scary, and very tiring.
So eventually, while trying to maintain my strength and morale, I tried a third way: Riding as much on the surface of the water as possible by staying on my board and kicking to keep my legs high, while stroking with my arms as much as possible. I was finally making progress toward shore. Just as I was able to touch the sea floor, a very capable young lifeguard came out with her float, and she helped me the last few yards to shore. I was exhausted, but I made it. If I had not had my board, I might not have. If I had been pulled under by the current, I doubt even the most capable lifeguard could have rescued me in time. It would have been another sad case of dumb landlubbers drowning from stupidity.
After I had mostly recovered my wits, I talked with the guards. Apparently, if you know what to look for, it is possible to see rip currents from shore because the water there is choppy. Hmm… choppy equals rip currents? Choppy in between two organized waves patterns intersecting at a slight angle where the chop is? But unless you know what rip currents look like, just seeing choppy water doesn’t seem like enough of a warning sign.
As we spoke, I noticed a second guard pulling another fellow out, but he was much closer than I had been. Apparently, the policy was not to announce danger until after a swimmer had gotten into trouble! This seems unnecessarily risky – like waiting for your child to burn himself in the fire before teaching him to avoid it. Why not put up flags in the area, about 100 to 200 ft wide, and tell people to stay out of that area? If the rip current moves, move the flags? Clear, bright-colored signs might just save someone’s life. Waiting for someone to be in danger before warning other swimmers is more dangerous for both the trapped person, and the possible rescuers.
I had assumed that it would be safest where the lifeguards were, and most of the parents of small children had also made that assumption– but in fact it was far more dangerous. Warning signs advertising the danger of rip currents in that immediate area would have corrected my misconception before I was ever in danger.
Bottom line? The signs in the parking lots don’t help one know where the trouble lies (where are those arrows in the actual water, anyway?). An experienced person (e.g. lifeguards) should tell the newbies where to swim and where not to swim on that particular day, on that particular beach, BEFORE they get in. Ideally, these messages should be both visual (flags or signs) and verbal, if possible.
Once someone is in trouble, I think it is crucial for guards to act right away to bring them back to safety, and not wait for him or her to tire. Blowing a whistle at a person getting too close to the dangerous rip current would be informative and potentially life-saving. But whistling at them when they are already in trouble is only confusing and may cause someone to panic and struggle harder. Finally, it would be helpful to add a sentence to the rip current warning signs that provide tips on surviving if caught up in a rip current: Stay on the surface as much as possible, gradually working your way out of the current, and/or signaling for help.
Lately there have been way too many drownings and near misses reported all along the East Coast, often taking away a breadwinner or beloved family member. Having our lifeguards take more pro-active role in informing swimmers where the rip currents are, and even to stay out of those areas, would go a long way toward decreasing such useless and wasteful losses. Decreasing drownings would be a big reward for the added work this would mean for our lifeguards. Their more active role in delineating and controlling access to rip current locations would result in a safer workplace for those lifeguards and enhance the reputations of our beaches and vacation villages.
Timothy E. O’Brien III
David Hallac, Cape Hatteras National Seashore superintendent, responds
The Ocracoke Observer contacted Dave Hallac, Cape Hatteras National Seashore superintendent, about the preceding letter. Hallac said that while the National Park Service is not downplaying the situation that Tim O’Brien found himself in, Hallac said the lifeguards acted prudently and professionally and spend time educating Ocracoke beach-goers about the rip current danger.
“The lifeguards are committed, and we will continue to provide it at one significant spot so that people can have a less risky swimming experience,” he said. “We are by no means downplaying the situation he (O’Brien) found himself in. We’re glad he’s OK and we appreciate any comments he has.”
This year, there have been four swimming-related fatalities off the Seashore, including one on Ocracoke on June 7.
“The ocean is rough here,” Hallac said, especially with the longshore currents along the surf. “Swimming in the Atlantic Ocean is dangerous. Rip currents are not easy to see; they can be subtle or strong.”
However, visitors must remember that Ocracoke is not Nags Head, which is an incorporated town, he said. The wide-open Ocracoke beaches are a national park and thus a natural landscape.
“People swim all over the island,” he said. “The sand bars shift and move all the time.”
Sand bars close to shore create rip currents: a break in the sand bar will create a situation for the incoming water to rush back out. This is a rip current.
Since March 2017, Stacey Sigle, safety manager for the Outer Banks Group, partnered with North Carolina Sea Grant to install more than 150 new rip current safety signs at parking areas and dune walkovers, according to a story in this summer’s issue of “Coastwatch,” an N.C. Sea Grant publication. These signs are in addition to the dozens of “Break the Grip of the Rip” signs already in place.
Hallac said anyone is free to call him about their concerns anytime at 252-475-9032.
For information about rip currents and how to spot “dangerous” and “safe” water, click here, and see the Observer’s Rip Current page.
Hallac said the park service is continuing to evaluate more public education and they are considering ideas the Ocracoke Observer proposed regarding rip current safety, such as:
- Purchase a jet ski for the Ocracoke lifeguards to be able to quickly get to any swimmer along the island
- Hire a third lifeguard to drive up and down the beach
- Move the lifeguard stand and its swimming area a bit further up the beach and place red flags at the spot in front of where the stand sits now since a rip current has thrived in that spot for the last few years.
- Create a high-danger-for-rip currents flag system that will alert visitors as soon as they debark the ferries.
- Set up a signage system along the beach every mile or so and give these areas specific names, such as “Leatherback Beach,” for example, so that when swimmers are in trouble emergency responders would have a better idea of where they are.