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New modeling system could help guard against rip currents, like the one that took the life of a popular NHCS teacher

Wrightsville Beach Ocean Rescue Director Dave Baker says to ask the lifeguard about the day's conditions.
Wrightsville Beach Ocean Rescue Director Dave Baker says to ask the lifeguard about the day's conditions.

In the U.S., about one hundred people die in rip currents every year. Sadly, that includes a beloved teacher who lost her life at Kure Beach, where she drowned trying to save two kids from the water. WHQR reports on how to spot dangerous currents -- and on the emerging tech that can tell us where they might show up.

Jessica Embry, who lost her life saving two others, was the orchestra teacher at Ashley High. At the most recent New Hanover County School Board meeting, Pastor Ethan Welch of The Bridge Church led the room in a moment of reflection for her.

And the rip current nearly claimed another life; Antonio Burns aided Embry in helping the two children. He was hospitalized and has since been discharged -- but first responders from Kure Beach couldn’t revive Embry after she rescued the children.

Steve Pfaff is the warning coordination meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Wilmington, and he’s familiar with the dangers of rip currents. He said if the lifeguard isn’t around, “focus on getting a professional there, call 911 if you see someone in trouble, try and throw that person something that floats to be able to help them.”

Going out into the water without any type of floatation is a recipe for disaster. Pfaff said, “if you make it to the person you’re attempting to rescue, their instincts are kicking in to keep their head above water and get air into their lungs. And they will inadvertently push you under if you get to them, and you need to be prepared for that. They’re not trying to push you under, they’re just trying to keep their head above water.”

Pfaff used the analogy of being on an airplane and putting your oxygen mask on before you can help others. “You’re no good if you can’t stay afloat when you’re trying to make a rescue.”

Unfortunately, the numbers show that untrained people who go in for rescues put themselves in dangerous situations. According to Pfaff, “one of the things that really pops out at us is that 26% of our drownings in the Carolinas are the bystander; that’s going in attempting a rescue, you know, doing the human thing, you see someone in distress, you want to go in the water to help them. I know it’s easier said than done, but oftentimes the person or bystander who’s going in to make the rescue doesn’t survive, but the initial victims do.”

Since 2000, North and South Carolina have seen 170 drownings off their coasts. Pfaff said that while young and old alike can, unfortunately, drown in the ocean, there are certain populations who are more susceptible -- including men, who are five times more likely to die.

“The demographics of those numbers most of the fatalities are males between the age of 41 and 50. And females are 31 to 40. It’s sobering to have to keep these numbers. For instance, last year, there were 11 rip current drownings in the Carolinas which was a little bit higher than what we typically see,” said Pfaff.

And Pfaff said that over half of these drownings are people from areas outside the Carolinas coming to the beaches to vacation. Another major risk factor is not swimming at a lifeguarded beach.

Rip Current and Rescue - Wrightsville Beach Fire Department

Dave Baker has over forty years of lifeguarding experience and is currently the Ocean Rescue Director for Wrightsville Beach. He also said it’s difficult not to standby when someone’s caught in a rip current.

“Human nature is to save a life. When they see trouble, they want to intervene. That is a personal choice. You know your limitations and your abilities better than anyone else,” Baker said.

And how can you spot someone who is in trouble? Baker said, “what you’ll see is someone just barely keeping their head up, looking straight to the sky. If they have long hair, it’s usually in their face while they’re trying to come to shore. Their eyes are like saucers; they’re scared.”

He said his staff trains most of the year to have the ability to pull swimmers out of rips, because, “it’s like being on a treadmill if you’re not used to it.” And that, “this channel of water rushing out is even faster than the fastest Olympic swimmer to swim against in some cases. So that’s why we say swim parallel to shore.”

Rip currents can be deceiving.

“Oh, the waves aren’t breaking there. I’m not going to get knocked out. Well, the reason the waves are not breaking there, that is the channel where the rip current has formed is pulling out. So having waves breaking is actually good,” said Baker.

And swimming in the ocean is a whole different ball game. Pfaff said, “just keep in mind, it’s not like swimming in a pool. There are a lot of things going on between the currents and the waves.”

If caught in a rip current, swim parallel to shore.
If caught in a rip current, swim parallel to shore.

Baker also explained how dynamic the environment can be.

“It may be safe and inviting for one minute. And then the next minute, there’s a rip current that has popped up and you’re being pulled out to sea. What are you going to do? You’re going to remain calm, swim parallel to the shore, and then come right back in,” Baker said.

What people should really worry about on their day at the beach, said Baker, are the possibilities of these rip currents.

“I say everything you see on the Discovery Channel is out there. However, worldwide, you are only looking at 12 to 14 deaths from a shark attack. Nationally, just in the U.S. alone, you have over 100 deaths caused from rip currents, they are far more dangerous than any encounter you will have with a shark. So learn what the record is. Talk to the lifeguards,” Baker said.

Rip currents are basically gaps in the sand bar, where the water, which can be discolored, works like a conveyor belt moving away from shore, according to Pfaff: “And if you don’t know how to get off that conveyor belt, then eventually you’re going to tire, rip currents don’t pull you under, you will go under as soon as you don’t have the ability to stay afloat anymore.”

Since there’s so much at stake in identifying rip currents, Baker and his staff call Pfaff and the staff at the National Weather Service in Wilmington twice a day to exchange information on conditions at the beach. But there’s an improved tool they’ll use this summer, and Pfaff said he’s excited to use it.

Dr. Greg Dusek is a senior scientist for the National Ocean Service (NOS), a part of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), and the creator of a new model that can predict rip current conditions up to six days in advance. It’ll also give more specific forecasts to individual beaches.

Dusek said that when beachgoers see waves over 4 to 5 feet, they usually know to stay out of the water, but that his new model is telling them the smaller waves can be dangerous, too,

“The biggest thing I think we’ve learned from this is that you really don’t need large waves to have rip currents. We see hazardous rip currents with waves only two to three feet. And those are the days at the beach where you might show up and think it looks completely safe,” Dusek said.

Wave height and direction, tides, water level, and what the waves are doing over the past couple of days are some of the factors or variables in the prediction model, but Dusek said there’s one variable that’s exceedingly difficult to measure: “I think one of the big challenges is actually knowing what the shape of the bottom is another story. And that’s an incredibly difficult thing to get at, in large part we don’t have good observations of sandbars and how they move.”

But Dusek said he and others at NOS are working on using webcam imagery, like surf cams or webcams, so that they can input the sandbar images into his model.

Since this technology of observing the sandbar’s movements isn’t quite ready, Dusek said it’s still important to talk to those who are on the ground.

“Those are our observers, so if there’s anyone in the world who can tell you about if they see any hazardous rip currents, it’s going to be the lifeguards,” Dusek said.

But we still have a long way to go in helping the public understand what’s at stake out in the ocean. While Dusek is optimistic that the improved model can help predict rip currents more accurately, he still found that “we still see roughly the same number of drownings every year.”

Dave Baker knows and understands the risks well, and tells beachgoers to observe what the lifeguards are doing: “If you see that rescues have been made, and another family comes up, let them know that it’s a dangerous day, and there’s a lot of rip currents going around.”

 Wrightsville Beach Ocean Rescue uses the red, yellow, and green flags.
Donaldson_L, Sarasota County
Wrightsville Beach Ocean Rescue uses the single red, yellow, and green flags.

Baker also said to notice what kind of flags are flying. A red flag day means swimming is not advised; yellow means to be cautious of rip currents; and as for green, it’s relatively safe to swim. But Baker wanted to remind everyone that, “our beaches are a natural resource. We want everyone to have a fabulous time, if you see trash, pick it up. Enjoy the beauty that we have and come back another day.”


Rachel is a graduate of UNCW's Master of Public Administration program, specializing in Urban and Regional Policy and Planning. She also received a Master of Education and two Bachelor of Arts degrees in Political Science and French Language & Literature from NC State University. She served as WHQR's News Fellow from 2017-2019. Contact her by email: rkeith@whqr.org or on Twitter @RachelKWHQR