Surviving Rip Currents: Part 2 of 2

Wrightsville Beach, NC – When Chris Brewster spoke to the audience, not all of his words came easily.

[Brewster] Lifeguards consider it a personal failure whenever there's a drowning in an area anywhere near them. But, um, we take any drowning that happens anywhere personally because we know what we would be able to do if we were there.

Brewster is president of the United States Lifesaving Association, or USLA. A lifesaving veteran of more than 20 years, he knows lifeguards can't always be there. A painful reminder came last year in the Florida panhandle, when rip currents on unguarded beaches killed eight people in one day. That day is known in lifeguard circles as Black Sunday.

To help prevent further tragedies, the USLA, beach communities, and government scientists have teamed up to educate the public about these silent killers.

Spencer Rogers is one of those scientists. He studies coastal processes for North Carolina Sea Grant, part of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, or NOAA. He says the focus of rip current research has changed.

[Rogers] The researchers have made the jump from simply looking at it from a science and sediment perspective to a people hazard perspective, and for safety at the beach that's an important jump.

Rip currents are dangerous because they flow away from shore. Under the right conditions, the can carry swimmers out through the surf zone and past the breakers. Swimmers caught in them can become panicked and quickly exhausted.

Rogers says rip currents can form any time there are waves breaking against the shoreline.

[Rogers] One of the more common ways they form is where there is pre-existing sandbars and openings in the bars. And what happens is there's always a rip current there, just about every day, but when the wave conditions reaches a certain point for those shoreline conditions, it's a tuned system, so all of the sudden what was a relatively minor current becomes a very rapid current.

Rip currents become dangerous when breaking waves dump too much water on the beach. The water is forced to shoot back to sea through breaks in the sand bars.

Rip currents are often confused with undertow. Wrightsville Beach Lifeguard Captain Bud Woodrum says undertow is a common misconception.

[Woodrum] Sometimes the current underneath the water will be moving at a greater rate than the current on the surface of the water, and that gives you a sensation that you're being sucked under, but there's no such thing as an undertow that's going to pull you straight down under the water.

Escaping rip currents requires a cool head. If possible, get someone's attention onshore. Most importantly, swim parallel to shore until you're out of the rip current. Woodrum says the best strategy is to identify rip currents ahead of time and avoid them completely.

[Woodrum] Typically, rip currents will be discolored in some way. Either they'll be a more brownish tint or a darker green tint, depending on how much salinity is in the water. If you stop and look closely, which unfortunately most people don't, you can actually see a slight current pulling out to sea.

Rip currents can also be deceptive. They lure beachgoers by creating an inviting place to swim.

[Woodrum] From my experience, from surfing and being a lifeguard, typically when the surf is bigger, the waves will be less organized in the rip. You'll look at it, and the waves won't look as big, they might be a little choppier but not as big, and it might be like, 'That's a calm place to go swim.' So it is very dangerous and deceiving in that way.

Rip currents are intensified by large incoming swells, like those produced by tropical storms and hurricanes. Because the Carolinas extend far out into the Atlantic Ocean, they are particularly susceptible to these storm swells. Steve Pfaff of NOAA's National Weather Service office in Wilmington says this can create another deceptive situation for beachgoers.

[Pfaff] People go to the beach, and just because the weather is nice because the storm is 500 miles offshore, that they assume that the surf conditions are nice, as well, and that's not the case. And those are the days that I think are most treacherous to the Carolinas, when there's a distant tropical storm producing a large swell that's coming our direction.

Not only do large storms produce swells that intensify rip currents, they also move sandbars around.

[Pfaff] You might get a large storm, it displaces the sandbar, and your rip that was fixed in one spot one day, a week later might be somewhere else.

The dynamic and localized nature of these currents makes predicting them a challenge. The National Weather Service uses wind and wave observations to forecast rip current risks as low, moderate, or high. These Rip Current Outlooks can cover vast stretches of beach, some nearly 50 miles long. This information is broadcast on NOAA Weather Radio and posted on the National Weather Service website.

Predicting the next regional hot spot may be as challenging as trying to predict localized rip currents. Sea Grant's Spencer Rogers:

[Rogers] In recent years, the Florida panhandle for instance has had an awful lot of drownings and an awful lot of problems. But a few years before that, it wasn't that much of a problem down there. So, North Carolina is the same way, that we have periods where there are not many rip currents in any given year and then some when there are an awful lot of rescues and drownings. Just because there haven't been any lately doesn't mean there won't be any tomorrow or in the future.

The USLA recommends swimming near a lifeguard at all times, but that's not always possible. That's where public education comes in. Steve Pfaff says part of the new rip current awareness campaign includes beach signs and stickers for trashcans.

[Pfaff] You know, a lot of communities in the Carolinas, beach communities, don't have lifeguards. And those signs and those stickers are kind of like silent lifeguards. They're the only piece of safety information between the public and the beach as they walk through that beach access way. So I think having those in place, even if it saves one life, all those signs are worth it.

For WHQR public radio in Wilmington, I'm Steve Meador.