June 2, 2011

Avon water rescues call attention to rip current threat to ocean swimmers


The Hatteras Island Rescue Squad responded to four calls from the beach at Ocean View Drive in Avon on Wednesday, June 1, and assisted 12 swimmers in distress.

The troublesome area yesterday and today, according to Bob Helle, assistant chief and public information officer for the squad, was between the Avon Pier and the Food Lion.

“We have been going non-stop,” Helle said yesterday evening. “Every time we got back to the station (in Buxton), we got called out again.”

Helle said the swimmers got in trouble when they tried to get back to the beach from an outer sandbar and got caught in the heavy rips – strong, narrow currents that rush back out to sea through breaks in the bar. They can pull even the strongest swimmers out to sea.

The incidents, he said
, involved both adults and children.

In the first call, about 12:30 p.m., a woman had trouble getting back to the beach and was assisted by family members.  The woman managed to get out of the water, but two family members were transported to Outer Banks Hospital.  Helle said he thinks they were okay.

The other rescued swimmers declined medical attention.

Helle said that the rescue squad had only one call this afternoon – at about 12:30 p.m. for a swimmer in trouble just south of Ramp 38 in Avon.

An Avon volunteer firefighter, he said, went out with fins on a boogie board to stay with the man until the rescue squad arrived with its Jet Ski.

However, Helle said he was out on the Avon beach this morning in a rescue truck displaying a red flag, and there were eight to 10 strong rip currents between Ramp 38 and the Avon Pier.

He said he stopped and warned about 10 different people that their group had set up on the beach right in front of or next to a rip.

The tide is very low on the Avon beach, probably because of a new moon, and he said there were many breaks in the outer bar causing the currents.

The currents are most dangerous several hours on either side of low tide, which was about 1 p.m. yesterday and 2 p.m. today.

They can often be identified by looking for brownish, cloudy water rushing back out against the incoming tide.

Helle said he called the National Weather Service office in Newport, N.C., which issued a special weather statement to warn of the rips.

The office issues a rip current forecast each day, and the forecast had been moderate both y
esterday and today.

Helle said he hoped after only one call today that swimming conditions would be improving.

He said that the rip currents have also been problematic on beaches in Rodanthe.

Rip currents are a constant danger, especially for visitors not used to swimming in the ocean.  And they are the cause for most drownings in the Cape Hatteras National Seashore.

“The ocean is a wonderful place to swim - if you are careful. Swimming in the ocean is not the same as swimming in a pool or lake. Wind, waves, the change of the tide, the slope of the beach and other factors can cause strong currents to be present in the water even on the calmest days.

“Ocean conditions can change from day to day and from hour to hour. Before going in the water, spend a few moments watching the waves. Wave patterns are a good indicator of the presence of currents and where deep water and other "surprises" are located. Know what to expect bef
ore you go in the water.”

If you are caught in a rip current, stay calm.  Don’t fight the current and try to swim straight into the beach, even if you are a strong swimmer.  The currents are usually very narrow and you can escape by swimming parallel to the beach, until you are out of the rip.  Then swim toward the beach.

If you are unable to escape by swimming, float or tread water.  When the current weakens, swim at an angle away from the current toward shore.

Signal for help if you need it.

On its website, the seashore offers these additional ocean swimming safety tips:

  • Use lifeguarded beaches. The National Park Service is currently operating lifeguarded beaches Coquina Beach on Bodie Island, Cape Hatteras Beach near the old lighthouse site, and Ocracoke Lifeguarded Beach. The beaches are staffed by lifeguards from 10 a.m. until 5 p.m. every day but Tuesday, until Labor Day.  The park hopes to add Tuesday lifeguards when hiring is completed.
  • Non-swimmers should use Coast Guard-approved flotation vests, even while wading.
  • Do not swim in the ocean alone - take a buddy with you.
  • Stay sober - don't swim while intoxicated. Alcohol can affect your judgment and your body temperature - impairing your ability to swim.
  • Don't swim during rough seas. Broken necks and paralysis have resulted from swimmers being thrown into the ocean bottom headfirst.
  • The force of big waves crashing at the shore's edge can pick you up and throw you into the sand. This may result in a dislocated shoulder or knee.
  • Due to dangerous currents, never swim in the inlets.
  • Do not swim at night or near fishing piers.
  • Children should swim only with adult supervision.
  • Know the various types of ocean currents and how to get out of them.
  • Watch the weather. Storms and squalls come up quickly.
  • Don't swim during thunderstorms. Lightning is extremely dangerous and does strike the beach.
  • Don't wear shiny objects when swimming - these objects may attract sharks and other fish.
  • Watch for jellyfish. If stung, seek first aid if needed. Don't rub sand on the stings. Spraying or pouring vinegar on the sting site often reduces the pain. If you don't have vinegar, try ammonia or denatured alcohol.
  • Do not swim near surfers - surfboard fins can cut you.


Information on the rip current threat for each day is available on NOAA weather radio. You can also get the information online at www.weather.gov/newport. Click on the surf zone forecast. 

Rip current information is also available on at the Cape Hatteras National Seashore site, www.nps.gov/caha, and at the Eena Project, www.eenaproject.com.

Park Service Visitor Centers in Buxton and Ocracoke have information on rip currents and surf zone forecasts.

Another source for information on dangerous rip currents is the local surfing reports, which are usually broadcast on the local radio stations.

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