Memorial Day marks the unofficial start to the summer season. But before you flock to the coast, it’s important to realize the threats mother nature can pose.
“Beaches are very safe places for recreation in general but, the exception, that’s often very difficult to identify in advance is rip currents. And rip currents lead to about 100 deaths every single year in the United States,” said Spencer Rogers, NC Sea Grant.
Rogers studies rip currents with North Carolina Sea Grant and said it’s the speed at which the currents move that make them dangerous.
“Rip currents are currents that are collected along the beach and are redirected off shore, almost perpendicular to the shore line,” Rogers said. “And when they do that, at their peak velocities, they can be faster than an Olympic swimmer can swim.”
Monitoring the rip currents at Wrightsville Beach is a joint effort between the National Weather Service forecasters, researchers and the lifeguards. They all say rip currents can happen on any day, even during pleasant conditions.
“It can be anytime, anywhere, even on the Great Lakes you can have rip currents,” said Dave Baker, Wrightsville Beach Ocean Rescue Director. “If you have wave action which forms with the wind, time and fetch, you can have rip currents.”
Recognizing you’re in a rip current is half the battle.
“The trick is identifying that you’re in a rip current and not panicking. Panic causes more drownings than about anything else related to rip currents,” said Rogers.
Baker said there are signs you can look for when you’re in the ocean.
“Physically, are you getting tired? Is the beach getting any closer? You’re in a rip current if it’s not getting any closer and you’re getting tired,” said Baker. “Remain calm then swim parallel to shore,” he added.
Baker said during the summer, they have 17 lifeguards on duty to cover the 4.5 miles of shoreline that make up Wrightsville Beach. But what happens when there isn’t a lifeguard on duty?
“If you find yourself at a beach without a lifeguard, go in the water with floatation, that could be a surf board, that could be a body board, it could be a noodle,” Baker said.
The National Weather Service issues statements on its website when the rip currents will be dangerous.
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