May 26, 2015

Rip Current Preparedness
Week begins June 7

Rip Current Preparedness Week kicks off June 7, just as the busy summer season is getting underway on the North Carolina coast.

Oak Island already has reported the May 12 death of a swimmer likely caught in a rip current a day earlier, stressing the importance of avoiding rip currents and knowing how to escape if caught in one.

During the designated week and all season, partners will highlight how to stay safe while enjoying our beautiful beaches. Collaborators in North Carolina include local ocean rescue teams, North Carolina Sea Grant, National Weather Service forecast offices, and beach communities.

“Beaches are pretty safe places for recreation but the primary exception on most ocean beaches is rip currents,” explains Spencer Rogers, Sea Grant coastal construction and erosion specialist.

Last summer, Rogers, along with University of North Carolina Wilmington graduate student Cobi Christiansen and a variety of partners, deployed data-logging drifters on beaches in New Hanover County and along the Outer Banks. Their goal was to record the frequency of rip currents that circulated back to shore.

Their data analysis showed that 10 percent of the drifters were ejected into deeper waters and did not recirculate back to shore
That was a higher rate of ejection than data from colleagues’ previous research conducted on the West Coast, which showed more rip currents with circulation cells. In those cells, swimmers caught in rip currents could keep calm and float — and eventually be brought back toward shore, by the water flow.

Rogers says the North Carolina data pose a big question: “What threshold of ejections can you tolerate? If you’re only losing 10 percent of the people, is that an acceptable reason to say float? It’s not,” Rogers says.

“If there is any real likelihood of an ejection, you pretty much have to tell people to try and get out of it,” he explains. He cites the long-told advice to stay calm but also begin to swim parallel to the shore until out of the rip current, which is normally fairly narrow in width.

The NWS forecast offices serving the North Carolina provide daily rip current forecasts, ranging from low to high threats. These data also are used to further rip current research.

 “Taking real-time information and correlating it with our rip current forecast, we are able to learn more about rip current activity along our coast, and use that information for future research,” Sandy LaCorte explains, meteorologist for the NWS Wilmington Office. “We have several years of beach reports, and look forward to continuing to grow our database so that we can better understand rip currents and improve future predictions.”

Rogers and partners will continue their research this summer, including near Rogers’ office in Wilmington, along with drifters stationed at the Outer Banks and others loaned to colleagues in South Carolina.

Overall N.C. rip current research project partners have been: North Carolina Sea Grant; UNCW Center for Marine Science; NWS Wilmington Forecast Office; and Town Lifeguard Programs in Carolina Beach, Wrightsville Beach and Kure Beach.

Cooperating partners in the research included UNCW Surf Club, Wrightsville Beach Longboard Association, Tony Silvagni Surf School in Carolina Beach, CB Surf Shop in Carolina Beach and the University of New South Wales.

To learn more about rip currents and to view video of a drifter deployment, visit

Beach Safety: Rip Current Tips and Educational Materials

Folks heading to the beach this summer should be aware of the potential for rip currents.

National Weather Service officials report one fatality due to rip currents along our coast in 2014, and a total of at least 58 deaths since 2000.

There are a variety of beach safety resources available to the public — including some right on the beach.

“Lifeguards are not only on the beach to respond to emergency situations, but also to inform the public about current conditions. Talk to your local lifeguard when enjoying the beach this summer and always look out for your fellow friends and family while participating in water activity,” explains Simon Sanders, Ocean Rescue Supervisor for Carolina Beach.

A rip current is a strong current that moves away from the shore. Rip currents often can be identified as a flat spot between breaking waves that can last minutes or months. Here are some safety tips:
  • If you are planning to swim in the ocean, look for a location with lifeguards.
  • If you are caught in a rip current, do not panic. If able, alert those on shore of your problem. Then swim parallel to the shore to get clear of the rip current.
  • If you are on shore and see someone in distress, alert lifeguards and call 911. If you go in the water, take flotation devices for yourself and the person or persons caught in the rip.

North Carolina partners continue to promote rip current safety by posting signs, providing magnets and sharing daily rip current outlooks from National Weather Service Offices in Newport/Morehead City and Wilmington, N.C., and Wakefield, Va. Online safety materials also are available via the NWS portal at

Magnets, signs and brochures with the Break the Grip of the Rip national safety message are available from North Carolina Sea Grant. For prices go to and search for rip currents. For individual orders, call 919-515-9101. Communities, vacation rental firms and others with bulk orders also can call 910-962-2490. Download the rip current poster here.

(You can check each day's rip current forecast for the Outer Banks by clicking on the yellow box on The Island Free Press front page -- at the top on the right.)

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