The 80-person human chain that formed on the Florida coast to save a family from rip currents on July 8 made for dramatic images and a happy ending. It could also have gone terribly wrong.
One of every five victims of rip currents in the Carolinas over the past four years were would-be saviors, says Steve Pfaff, warning coordination meteorologist at the National Weather Service’s Wilmington office.
“People are going in the water ill-prepared,” Pfaff said. “And then after swimming to the rescue, they’re out of gas when they get out there.”
A rash of four rip-current deaths in 10 days on North Carolina’s mid-coast last month underscored the dangers. Among them was a 56-year-old man who went into cardiac arrest and drowned while trying to save two teenage girls, who survived.
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“It was heroic of him to be willing to give up his life to help others,” Atlantic Beach Fire Chief Adam Snyder told the Carteret County News-Times. He added: “Unfortunately, statistics show it’s the ones who go out to help someone who is in trouble who ends up drowning.”
The safer choice is to summon a lifeguard or call 911, experts say. Bystanders with no other choice should attempt rescues only if they have some form of flotation device, such as a surf board.
Rip currents were the third-leading cause of U.S. weather fatalities last year, the weather service says. The 58 deaths ranked behind only floods and heat-related causes of death.
Rip currents have killed six people so far this year in North Carolina, according to weather service meteorologists. Online weather service data says 10 were killed last year.
Lifeguards call the powerful currents “drowning machines.”
They’re strongest when the surf is heaviest. As water from strongly breaking waves piles up on shore, it seeks the path of least resistance – often away from shore through a break in sandbars. A rip current is born.
South-facing beaches, like those that claimed the four victims in early June, often develop rip currents earlier in summer, meteorologists say. East-facing beaches often get them in late summer as tropical storms form and winds shift to the east.
Rip currents are typically only about 30 feet wide. But they can be powerful in knee-deep water and can move faster than an Olympic swimmer. Most victims don’t know they’re in one until it’s too late.
Emerald Isle police helped more than 80 people out of the water because of rip currents in less than two weeks in June. Resident Burt Copson, who attended a beach safety event last month, told WNCT how quickly he’d once been ensnared in one.
“Before I knew it, when I looked back at the beach, I was out between one and two football fields,” Copson told the Greenville TV station. “I kept telling myself to stay cool, and I kept just minute by minute getting closer and closer to the beach.”
Most of the 121 rip current fatalities in the Carolinas since 2000 were men 31 to 50 years old, the weather service says. Despite color-coded warning flags and advisory signs at beach access points, victims are often tourists from inland areas who are caught unaware.
“These are beautiful places to visit, but they’re being visited by people who have no experience with rip currents,” Pfaff said.
The Morehead City office is helping test an experimental computer model that would extend one-day forecasts to four days. It’s not yet in public use.
“Hopefully, we can get a better idea of what’s coming and give folks a heads-up that it might be occurring,” said station meteorologist Tom Lonka. The weather service is working with the University of North Carolina and the National Ocean Service on the model, which is being tested across the East coast.
The model crunches data on water levels, wave height, the distance between waves and their direction from shore. The chance of rip currents is greatest before and after low tide, when waves are high and when they hit the shore at a perpendicular angle.
Meteorologists believe swells from a storm off the coast of Africa rippled across the Atlantic to hit south-facing beaches in North Carolina head-on in June, killing four people in Atlantic Beach and Emerald Isle.
How to survive a rip current
Powerful as rip currents are as they rush seaward, they don’t actually pull people under. Instead, the National Weather Service says, the currents exhaust the victims who try to fight them.
The weather service likens the experience – and the solution – to being trapped on a treadmill that can’t be turned off.
To get off a rogue treadmill, the user would simply step off it to one side. The same principle works to escape rip currents. Swim parallel to the shoreline or simply float or tread water until you’re out of the current. Then swim at an angle toward shore.
More tips on rip currents are here.