Rip Currents A Threat Along Crystal Coast

Jun 16, 2017

Rip currents are causing dangerous conditions along our coast.  We speak with local officials and emergency personnel about how to stay safe at the beach and how to break the grip of the rip.  

With summer less than a week away, local officials and emergency personnel are reminding folks that the beach – if not respected – can be a dangerous place.  Rip currents have been in the headlines this week after a drowning on Emerald Isle last Saturday.  Two teenagers from Wayne County were swimming near the Bogue Inlet Pier Saturday evening when they were swept out to sea. 

“The original call came in at 6:08pm, that’s when rescue units were dispatched to the scene for two swimmers in the water in distress.”

Emerald Isle Police Chief Tony Reese says a surfer quickly assisted 16 year old Tyreese Worsley to shore. 

“He was in distress, the people on the pier were shouting at one of the surfers and directed him to one of the individuals.  He was able to get the individual onto the surfboard until the rescue crews could get out on the jetski and bring him in.  And then CPR was started on the beach and he was transported to Carteret General and airlifted to Vidant Medical Center.”

His friend, 17 year old Elijah Hinnant went missing.  U.S. Coast Guard along with Emerald Isle Police, Fire and EMS conducted a 25 hour search of about 129 square nautical miles before it was called off.  On Monday, a dive team from Atlantic Beach was called in to check the waters where Hinnant was last seen.  A day later, a call came into Emerald Isle Police.

“We received a call from an individual staying in the 7700 block that they had observed something, an unidentified object bobbing in the water.  So we went out and sent rescue swimmers out who were able to identify it as the body of the 17 year old missing swimmer Mr. Hinnant. Our recovery team was able to go out and recover the body and bring it in.”

The other teen, Tyreese Worsley, remains at Vidant Medical Center in Greenville in serious condition. 

“It’s a tragic situation.  Our thoughts and prayers go out to the family of both young men as they go through the recovery and mourning of their loss.”

This is the first rip current death of the season along the Crystal Coast.  Although more than 50 rescues have taken place already this summer.  This week alone, there were 25 rescues in Emerald Isle despite warnings from the National Weather Service of a moderate threat of rip currents. 

Credit NOAA

Atlantic Beach is another tourist spot that’s dealing with an increase rescues this season.  Fire Chief for Atlantic Beach Fire Department Adam Snyder says there’s been 14 in the past few weeks.

“They’ve done some dredging, so that pumping of sand stops right at the edge of the Circle where the lifeguards are at.  So we are experiencing extremely strong rips right at our swimming area.”

Snyder says the town has 4.8 miles of coastline, but only 850 feet are protected by lifeguards.  The fire department responds to calls that come in from the rest of the beach. 

“So what we do, pretty much the lifeguards do in the morning time, they look and they actually get inside of the rip currents, see how hard they’re pulling, see if the water is safe that day.  So they really evaluate surf conditions and rip currents and so forth to make sure they’re advising the patrons on where the best areas to swim.”

If a strong rip current is confirmed, Snyder says lifeguards will post red flags in that area and prevent people from swimming.  They also have a system using color coded flags to let beachgoers know the rip current risk for that day.

“So a green flag, if they’re flying green flag, that means it’s good swimming.  A yellow flag means use caution, rip currents are present. And when we fly a red flag, we are recommending people not to swim at all.  We can’t force people not to swim, but at least we can make them aware that we’re not recommending that they swim.”

Rip currents form where there’s a break in a sandbar and water is funneled out to sea.  They may be sudden and unexpected, so lifeguards are constantly on the lookout watching for gaps between the waves, a channel of churning, choppy water and different colored water. 

“A lot of time it will be between tide changes so where the rip currents will be pulling a lot stronger than other times.  You also have to consider wave conditions.  So if there’s no wind or no waves, rip currents are going to be very slim to none.  When the surf is building and there’s lots of waves, which the waves are created by wind, at that point in time, you’re going to have very strong rip currents.”

During summer seasons with high winds and surf, Snyder says lifeguards and the fire department can take part in upwards of 200 rip current rescues. 

“Other summer seasons, we don’t have hardly any wind, any surf, so it will be a very calm summer and we will do none.  So it’s all depending on what Mother Nature is doing.”

Since long range rip current predictions aren’t possible, we’ll have to see what the season has in store.  Snyder has noticed that it has been windier than normal. That may be a contributing factor to the drowning in Emerald Isle along with two rip current rescues at Fort Macon last Saturday.

“They got kind of pulled out right in front of our guards fortunately and our guards were able to go get them, and get them back in safely.”  

Park Superintendent at Fort Macon State Park Randy Newman says he doesn’t have an exact number of rescues they’ve done this season.  He says if a rip current is spotted, lifeguards are be posted in the area to make sure people don’t swim.

“We have about a mile and a half of oceanfront beach but our lifeguards are only in a hundred yard area, we concentrate, so we tell everybody we have a protected area.  Our guards are constantly whistling people in, we really try to prevent from having rescues.”

Similar to Atlantic Beach and Emerald Isle, Fort Macon uses flags to alert beachgoers to the rip current threat except Newman says they never fly the green flag.

“There’s always rip currents every day.  We usually fly yellow flags just be cautious when you’re in the water.  So there’s always a threat, that’s just part of the beach habitat with the waves and sandbars.”

Last year, Fort Macon State Park reported record visitation of 18.8 million people, many coming to spend a day at the beach.  Likewise, Atlantic Beach experiences a population boom, going from 1,800 year round residents to 35,000 people during the summer months.  Anytime that more people are in the water, there’s the potential that the number of rip current rescues will go up.  That’s why Atlantic Beach Fire Chief Snyder is trying to get the message out to folks on how to break the grip of the rip.

“If you find yourself in a rip current and you’re being pulled away from the beach, the biggest thing is to remain calm, don’t panic, and swim parallel to shore.  Again, rip currents are mostly formed between two sandbars.  So if you swim parallel to shore, it’s a good likelihood that it could be 20 feet, sometimes 10 feet, sometimes 50 feet.  If you swim parallel, you’ll actually get on top of the sandbar and you might be able to just stand up.”

It’s also a good idea to bring a flotation device when you go in the water.  Lifejackets for the kids, but for you, something like a boogie board, an inner tube…

“Even one of those pool noodles, one of those pool noodles could save your life.  At least if you find yourself in a rip current, you can at least keep yourself afloat and then the fire department can come out and get you.”

Another way to minimize your risk of being swept away in a rip current, don’t go in water that’s deeper than waist high – especially if you’re not a strong swimmer.

“People just don’t drown because of rip currents.  We’ve had people on perfect days, just non-swimmers that get out on sandbars and step off the back of a sandbar and drown.  So the biggest thing if you’re coming down to the beach and you’re not a good swimmer is stay in shallow water.”

There are so many miles coastline that there’s no way to post lifeguards at every beach.  That’s why Snyder urges people to swim in a protected area. Every year, lifeguards rescue tens of thousands of people caught in rip currents across the United States. But according to the National Weather Service, an estimated 100 people are killed annually.  Here locally, towns don’t always keep track of rip current rescues, so it’s hard to say what the numbers are for eastern North Carolina. 

Check the surf forecast before you head to the beach.  Go to: http://www.weather.gov/beach/mhx 

For more information on how to break the grip of the rip, go to: http://www.ripcurrents.noaa.gov/