a surprisingly hot late September afternoon on Hatteras Island, and a
trio of beach-goers on the Rodanthe shoreline near Sea Isle Hills Drive
have decided to cool off by jumping into the ocean for a swim – right
in front of a posted sign that warns of rip currents in the immediate
Bailey, the captain of the Chicamacomico Banks Water Rescue team, sits
in his idling rescue pickup truck and watches to make sure the
impromptu dip doesn’t lead to a disaster.
It seems odd that someone would go swimming in front of a rip current sign, but as it turns out, it’s not an unusual occurrence.
it seems like the [rip current] signs are like magnets,” says Chet with
a laugh, “but our big problem here is that people don’t know what rip
an exercise that the 14-member rescue team is used to, and they’ve
become experts on knowing where the hot spots for rip currents are
located -- and posting signs alerting the public -- as well as spotting
any swimming activity that could lead to a problem. From there, a
response to someone being swept away takes place within minutes, if not
seconds, as the crew relies on skills that are acquired from continual
twice-a-week training sessions.
Chicamacomico Banks Water Rescue is celebrating its 30th year of
operation in 2016. The formerly all-volunteer team was founded in
1986 to patrol the tri-village area beaches and beyond and assist with
rescues as needed.
original volunteer organization has since become funded and that has
allowed for paid positions – although all members pretty much need to
have other part-time jobs on the Outer Banks to foot the bills.
“This isn’t something you do for the pay,” says Chet. “You do this because you want to help your community.”
while the funds are severely limited – and the Chicamacomico Banks
Water Rescue team is always appreciative of donations – the workload
for the team has clearly risen since its 1986 roots.
Chet Bailey joined the Water Rescue team in 1994 and was named captain in 2009.
years ago, there were maybe six calls a year, and now there are 140,”
he says. “I remember when I first joined, I really wanted to rescue
somebody. Now I think, ‘Please... I have to catch my breath!’”
The Chicamacomico Banks Water Rescue team has certainly had a busy 30th summer season.
date, the team has reported 101 persons rescued in the ocean, seven
persons rescued in the sound -- typically from a malfunctioning vessel
or Jet Ski -- 63 Emergency Medical Service calls to assist in a
situation, nine missing persons found, eight people with mobility
issues assisted to the beach, and two kiteboarders assisted.
this impressive list of feats, however, is also a count of two
drownings, which occurred just a couple weeks ago at a posted rip
current hot spot.
had talked to them about rip currents [before the incident], and one of
our trucks had just driven by when they went in the ocean,” says Chet.
a man had swum out into the water, gotten caught in the current,
and several others swam out to save him. The Chicamacomico Banks Water
Rescue team responded to the call in less than a minute, but at that
point, there was nothing that could be done. The man and one of his
would-be rescuers died.
“It was heartbreaking,” says Chet.
rip current-related deaths and incidents have become an island-wide
problem – a sentiment that is echoed by Hatteras Island District Ranger
Joseph Darling of the National Park Service.
has been a very deadly summer and we continue to pull people from the
water on almost a daily basis,” said Darling in a statement. “This
summer many visitors have needed minor assistance to reach the
shoreline, others visitors have needed major assistance (long
hospitalizations, successful CPR, and life flights) and five visitors
have died in the seashore.”
reason for the increased rescue activity for the Chicamacomico Banks
Water Rescue team boils down to an increase of new visitors, according
and more people are coming here who have never been here before,” he
says, “and everyone I talk to says ‘This is my first time here, but I
am coming back forever!’”
addition to this new wave of visitors, the tri-villages are also home
to a number of rip current hot spots which can stick around for years
at a time, and which are especially prevalent around low tide. A
tropical system or storm can exacerbate these conditions, and can
introduce new rip currents to the shoreline, or can re-introduce
dormant rip currents to the area.
rip current near the KOA Campground had lost strength, but reappeared
after Hermine,” says Chet, citing an example. “We have a couple
established rip currents that we know will [be around] during low tide,
and we’re always checking them.”
various tropical storms hanging around offshore for days at a time, the
National Weather Service has issued many days of high rip current
warnings for the area. In fact, there have been more days in which the
rip current risk has been high during September than days in which it
has been moderate or low.
crew patrols the shoreline daily during the height of the summer season
from the southern region of the Bonner Bridge to the area in between
the towns of Avon and Salvo, but spends the bulk of their time along
the beaches of Salvo, Waves, or Rodanthe.
only does this route give them proximity to the most populated stretch
of northern Hatteras Island, which is where rescue calls are likely to
occur, but it also gives them a better opportunity to talk with the
spend a lot of time talking to people, and telling them about rip
currents – and people are very responsive to it,” says Chet. “Honestly,
we could spend all day talking to people on the beach, and getting info
out to them.”
And some of the methods that the team uses to foster education on rip currents is pretty ingenious.
several recent popular beach weekends, the crew has distributed
harmless red or neon green dye into the water, to highlight the
lightning-fast path it makes out into the ocean waters when it’s
distributed into the middle of a rip current. One such example brought
a crowd to the shoreline in front of the KOA campground -- one of the
most popular beach areas and also home to a years-old rip current --
accomplishing a mass education in one fell swoop.
And on more frequent occasions -- simply because massive amounts of dye are expensive but apparently
crew members are not -- the team will jump into the water, get swept
out to sea, and will physically demonstrate how to swim parallel to the
shoreline to effectively “get out” of the rip current.
that an estimated 97 percent of the Water Rescue Team's calls are
related to rip currents, the live demonstrations – even if it involves
getting sucked into the ocean – are worth the effort.
also try to talk to people on Mondays, when they are just starting
their beach vacation,” says Chet. “Getting the word out is one of our
that end, the 30-year-old team is finding new and modern ways to spread
the word about rip current risks, starting with regular postings on
water and weather conditions on their Facebook page, https://www.facebook.com/Chicamacomico-Banks-Water-Rescue-280888235403636/?fref-ts.
combined with talking to folks on the beach and doing live demos, helps
alleviate the problem, albeit the Chicamacomico Banks Water Rescue
responds to all nature of calls.
the organization is so closely tied to the Chicamacomico Banks
Volunteer Fire Department, and even shares the same space close to
Atlantic Drive, it’s not unusual at all for members to be involved in
both of the organizations, or the Dare County EMS. Chet, for example,
is the deputy chief of the Chicamacomico Volunteer Fire Department, and
one member of the crew is “retired” after a 30-year-long career as an
EMS flight medic for Dare County.
“We are very lucky to have him,” says Chet.
of these close ties, Water Rescue can address all nature of calls
ranging from someone being stuck in a vacation rental home elevator to
a structural fire in the tri-villages. And while these off-the-beach
jobs are not directly tied to water rescue to be sure, they do have
their rewarding moments.
example, on roughly a half dozen occasions in 2016, the water rescue
team has been called upon to supply transportation for a disabled
person who could not access the beach without assistance.
probably the most rewarding aspect of the job,” says Chet. “[These
people] are so grateful to get to the beach, and we’re happy we can
Chicamacomico Banks Water Rescue team also has a beach-access
wheelchair that it freely lends out to the public when called upon, to
make getting to the beach easier.
while the small and rewarding tasks of helping someone visit the
Hatteras Island seashore may be few and far between - especially when
compared to the roughly two to four calls per day that require a
harried jump into the ocean, and up to 10 calls on a busy beach day,
the crew members continue to find rewards in all aspects of the job, 30
years after the Chicamacomico Banks Water Rescue began.
of the people we rescue will send us letters and maybe even send us a
donation,” says Chet. “And getting a follow-up letter from someone is
really amazing… We have an incredible crew, and we all love our jobs”
HOW TO VOLUNTEER
The Chicamacomico Banks Water Rescue is always looking for new volunteers and members.
“You got to know how to swim,” says Chet, “but we’ve had volunteers who have had no experience with the ocean.”
HOW TO DONATE
Visitors can send a check to the Chicamacomico Banks Water Rescue at the following address:
Chicamacomico Banks Water Rescue, P.O. Box 304, Rodanthe, NC 27968.
can also send a check to the all-volunteer Hatteras Island Rescue
Squad, which covers the southern Hatteras beaches in Avon, Buxton,
Frisco, and Hatteras village at the following address: Hatteras
Island Rescue Squad, P.O. Box 639, Buxton, NC 27920.
HOW TO SPOT RIP CURRENTS
currents can be difficult to spot, but often occur strongest after a
storm, (even if the water is calm), and especially occur during a low
currents often form close to sandbars that are close to shore. If you
see two sandbars jetting out into the ocean, and a deeper “hole” in
between, chances are there is a rip current present.
- Look for areas where the waves aren’t breaking. This is often where the “river of water” that is a rip current flows out to sea.
waves can also be a good indicator of a rip current. If there are waves
that seem to be crashing or breaking sideways, towards a central
locale, it’s an indication that a rip current is in between these two
the water movement. If foam, seaweed, or discolored water is being
pulled away from shore, that’s an indication of a rip current.
to NOAA, rip currents can be easier to spot from an somewhat aerial
perspective, like from a boardwalk on the sand dunes, or an oceanfront
vacation rental home close to the shoreline.
- If you
get caught in a rip, don’t panic, and don’t try to swim towards shore!
Instead, swim parallel to the shoreline until you no longer feel the
pull, and can safely swim back.