Warning signs go up about rip currents along N.C. beaches

New signs will go up soon on Sunset Beach to warn visitors about rip currents that have been blamed for the drowning deaths of at least seven people this summer off the Carolinas coast.

The town council voted earlier this month to post signs and distribute brochures about rip currents to local businesses.

But Rich Cerrato, the mayor of Sunset Beach, says that’s not enough.

He’s pushing for Sunset Beach and other Brunswick County beaches to hire lifeguards and institute a rip current warning system.

“I am on a mission to improve beach safety,” Cerrato said on Sunday.

At a meeting Thursday at Oak Island, Cerrato said he’ll urge leaders of the Brunswick beaches – including Holden Beach and Ocean Isle Beach – to adopt a system similar to the one used at Wrightsville Beach near Wilmington.

Both Wrightsville Beach and Carolina Beach in New Hanover County have lifeguards who fly red, yellow or green flags to inform swimmers of water conditions.

“This is not just a Sunset Beach problem,” Cerrato said. “It’s a Brunswick County problem...I don’t know why there is such a tradition here not to provide this service. The only excuse I get is ‘liability,’ and I’m not very pleased with that.”

Deadliest stretch

Four people drowned in Brunswick County on July 3 and 4, making that the Carolinas’ deadliest two-day stretch involving rip currents since five people died in July 2000, according to Steve Pfaff of the Wilmington office of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

The first came at about 11:30 a.m. July 3, when the current took hold of William Nicolaro as he swam with his son off Ocean Isle Beach. The son made it safely to shore, but Nicolaro, 72, of Palm Harbor, Fla., drowned.

Less than four hours later and six miles away at Sunset Beach, Mitchell McLean, 54, a Wilkesboro chief district court judge, tried to help Mary Ann Galway, 55, of Waxhaw, who was struggling in the water. They both drowned. Galway’s husband, Edward, was treated and released from the hospital.

The following day at about 1:30 p.m., Randall Joyce, 57, of Pfafftown, was swimming off Holden Beach when he and his family began struggling in the rip current. Joyce and three family members were taken to the hospital, where Joyce died.

Another drowning was reported Aug. 5 at Topsail Beach, north of Wilmington. The victim was identified as Laurel King, 66, a former assistant town clerk of Topsail Beach. Officials have said the rip current risk was low that day.

Record pace

More than 100 people die each year in rip currents, according to the U.S. Lifesaving Association.

The deadly currents – sometimes incorrectly referred to as rip tides or undertow – pull swimmers not under the surface but out to sea. The advice seems simple: Don’t fight the current and swim parallel to shore until you are out of it, then turn toward the beach. But even expert swimmers often panic.

Six of the seven Carolinas rip current deaths in July happened off North Carolina, putting 2013 on pace to break the state’s recent record of seven deaths set in 2002, data show.

Since 2000, at least 55 people have drowned off North Carolina because of rip currents, according to the NOAA. Thirty-five people drowned off South Carolina beaches.

Cost of lifeguards

It’s unusual in the United States to have tourist areas without lifeguarded beaches available, said Chris Brewster, president of the U.S. Lifesaving Association.

The association’s statistics have shown consistently for 10 years that there is only one drowning death for every 18 million beach visits in areas with lifeguards.

Mayor Cerrato, who has lived at Sunset Beach for 12 years, said he grew up going to Cape Cod, where lifeguards watched over swimmers.

He’s planning to invite officials from Wrightsville Beach to speak to the Sunset Beach council about how the lifeguard system works.

“I would like to have this town model our program after that,” Cerrato said. “We don’t have to reinvent the wheel.”

But there is much resistance, he said, from officials who think hiring lifeguards will be too expensive.

But Cerrato said lifeguards could be placed only in the most densely populated areas.

“I’m not looking to hire an army,” he said. “Other areas could be posted, ‘No lifeguard. Swim at your own risk.’...I know lawyers worry about liability. But today anybody can sue for anything whether you have lifeguards or not.”