Why ocean rescues are on the rise along the S.C. Grand Strand

A life guard sits at his station near the Surfside Beach pier.
A life guard sits at his station near the Surfside Beach pier. jlee@thesunnews

As another summer season nears its close, some ocean swimmers remain missing. They disappeared on different days, in different areas along the beaches, but they share the same status: not declared dead by the coroner’s office, but likely not alive.

First responders along the Strand said this summer has been a busy time for water rescues, and multiple factors are contributing to the reason behind them.

Officials say having more and more visitors each year has been steadily creating more water rescues during a summer that’s been plagued by rip currents and stronger longshore currents.

“I’ve seen other summers where we’ve had some issues, but we’re seeing more and more people on the Strand and more people are staying in the water longer,” said Duke Brown, beach safety director with Horry County Beach Patrol.

Rip currents have been troublesome for swimmers this season, especially on July 21 when the pull that quickly pilots swimmers far from the shore led to 56 water rescues, according to Sandy LaCorte, meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Wilmington, N.C.

“Great weather, I’m sure, increased visitors at the beach and just an abundance of wave energy created the perfect storm [that day],” LaCorte said.

It’s also possible that the movement of sand under the water is creating more rip currents, said Paul Gayes of Coastal Carolina University. Gayes, who is the director of CCU’s School of Coastal and Marine Systems Science said large storms like the system that caused widespread flooding in October create near-shore sandbars. When water punches through one of the sandbars, it creates a rip current.

Gayes said the October storm may have pulled enough sand out that it is creating more rip currents than usual.

This summer, in Myrtle Beach there have been at least three ocean drownings, not counting two missing boys. The ocean, the Grand Strand’s economic motor and most impressive natural resource, has proven deadly.

Last year there were 18 drownings in Horry County with 12 of those incidents happening during the summer months, according to officials at the Horry County Coroner’s Office. However, officials weren’t able to say how many of those were ocean drownings.

Missing swimmers

The 14-year-old from Columbus, Georgia, was swimming with his younger brother near 73rd Avenue North on June 16 when a call went out to look for the two distressed swimmers. The brother was successfully pulled from the water and treated on the beach by emergency responders.

The 12-year-old was swimming with his sister and brother on July 6, near 42nd Avenue North, when all three were caught in a strong current. Bystanders helped rescue the sister, who was treated on scene, and the 17-year brother, who was taken to a local hospital but died days later, authorities said.

Weeks have passed. Lt. Joey Crosby of the Myrtle Beach Police Department said options, this far out, are limited.

“Water craft searches would not be beneficial at this time,” Crosby said. “Our recovery mission will be performed from the beaches at this point.”

A 16-year-old boy from Georgetown County also went missing after attempting to rescue his younger brother in the ocean near Pawleys Island in early July. His brother was recovered from the waters that day, but he was not.

“The ocean has so many variables. You’re dealing with currents. You’re dealing with wave action. You’re dealing with wind issues. You’re dealing with aquatic life,” Brown said.

The ocean has so many variables. You’re dealing with currents. You’re dealing with wave action. You’re dealing with wind issues. You’re dealing with aquatic life.

Duke Brown, beach safety director with Horry County Beach Patrol

Many rescues this season have involved multiple victims, in which more than one swimmer is caught in the same current or situation, he said. The soaring heat index has led more beachgoers to stay in the water longer, which can contribute to the problem.

“With the heat indexes as high as they are, people get tired quicker and their energy level may not be what it needs to be,” Brown said.

Inexperience or incorrect use of equipment during aquatic activities also can lead to distress on the water.

“Everything people can use to enjoy themselves in the water can be a potential problem if it’s not used correctly or if you don’t have the knowledge on how to use it properly,” he said.

Watching the currents

Sgt. Philip Cain of Myrtle Beach Beach Patrol said there have been more longshore currents this year, which are the currents that tend to gradually pull swimmers down the shoreline.

“If you’re a non-swimmer, we don’t recommend that you go in the ocean,” Cain said. “If you do go in, we recommend that you only stay where you can see the bottom.”

Swimmers caught in rip currents should swim parallel to the shore to escape the current, then swim at an angle toward the shore, safety officials said. They also recommend floating on your back and calling for help if you can’t swim out of the rip current.

If you’re a non-swimmer, we don’t recommend that you go in the ocean,” Cain said. “If you do go in, we recommend that you only stay where you can see the bottom.

Sgt. Philip Cain of Myrtle Beach Beach Patrol

The many issues that might change ocean currents – such as weather systems and the topography of the ocean itself – are studied separately, according to CCU’s Gayes. Researchers are just beginning to study how these factors affect the number of ocean rescues.

“This isn’t a huge funded project here,” Gayes said. “It’s something we’ve got lots of calls about. We’re interested in these kind of processes.”

It’s also possible weather systems are changing, thus changing the ocean.

“One of the worries in the field is that all our models are looking at behavior of the (climate) system in the past,” Gayes said. “If we’re seeing fundamental change in our climate, the past may no longer be as good a projection of the future.”

Beachgoers stay vigilant

Rhonda Limon said she has been visiting the Grand Strand from Plano, Illinois for many years and feels safe in the water overall, but has been somewhat worried after hearing reports of drownings and strong currents this summer.

Her 17-year-old daughter is visiting with her, along with her daughter’s teenage friend.

“They know to be extra cautious. They know not to go out very far,” she said.

Lifeguards go off duty in the late afternoon when the water seems to be the roughest, beachgoer Boyd Jordan said, but he added that swimmers should take it upon themselves to be cautious. Lifeguards in most areas pack up at 5 p.m.; in North Myrtle Beach, they leave around 7 p.m.

“You just gotta be careful. You take the chance of going into the ocean, you gotta swim at your own risk, especially after they’re (the lifeguards are) gone,” he said.

Jordan, who has been visiting the Grand Strand for four or five years, said the lifeguards near Fourth Avenue South have been vigilant the days he’d been out on the beach.

Beachgoers along the more residential area near 42nd Avenue North said they felt safe in the area despite the lack of stationed lifeguards, which are more present in the hotel-dense south end.

Darrell Davidson, a longtime Grand Strand visitor from the Baltimore area, said he likes coming to the northern end because it’s less crowded and said beach authorities come through the area consistently.

“(Lifeguards) come by a lot,” he said. Davidson also said beachgoers help keep an eye on each other.

Safety presence

This summer, the Myrtle Beach Fire Department has strengthened its presence on the beaches with its new water rescue team, staffed with about 22 members who have received special training and certification, Lt. Jonathan Evans said.

Team members recently started patrolling the beach from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. and more should be joining the ranks as new team members complete training at the end of the summer.

“We’re trying to train ourselves to the highest standard so we can provide the best service possible,” Evans said.

But elsewhere, lifeguards are the first level of defense if a swimmer is struggling or caught in a rip current. Along most of the strand, cities and towns use a franchise system in which private companies train and post lifeguards. These companies do not receive money from local governments and make their revenue from renting beach chairs and umbrellas to visitors, Myrtle Beach city spokesman Mark Kruea said.

In Myrtle Beach, a lifeguard is posted at every city block in commercial areas, Kruea said. In residential areas like the Golden Mile, guards patrol the area, instead of having fixed stations.

Brown, of Horry County Beach Patrol, said it’s always best to find a spot near a guard. “If you end up going into an area that’s unguarded, and there’s no one there and you’re not a strong swimmer, there’s potential for problems,” he said. He also said more agencies out in force means more reports are generated.

North Myrtle Beach, however, is the exception to this trend. Roughly five years ago, the city decided to switch from the franchise system to managing lifeguards in-house. City spokesman Pat Dowling said that beach chair rentals are handled by recreation employees, not the lifeguards themselves.

Dowling also said that ocean rescues in North Myrtle Beach have fallen this year.

“From this particular city council’s view, if you’re going to have an ocean lifeguard, they don’t need to be selling drinks and don’t need to be setting up and renting chairs and umbrellas,” Dowling said.

But in Surfside Beach, Bill Bigham, who runs Beach Services Ltd., said his lifeguards have no problem with renting the chairs and watching the waters. His guards spend their days searching for struggling swimmers, warning against dangers like jellyfish and ensuring swimmers don’t stray too far from the shore. Bigham said the rentals are not a distraction because the chairs have to be set up at the start of his guards’ shifts, and must be finished by 9 a.m.

“Based on the number of years it’s been done like this and the number of accidents we’ve had, meaning drownings or near drownings, the system works,” he said.

Crucial to beach safety, Bigham said, is making sure that swimmers don’t stray more than 50 yards from the shore, or past where the water is chest deep.

“Some of these people come down here from Tennessee and West Virginia, and the ocean looks calm, like it’s the pond back home, and it doesn’t create much of a concern for them and they go out and swim farther than they should,” he said.

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