Rip Currents, Misinformation, and the Proactive Heroes who are Addressing the Problem - Shooting The Breeze


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Rip Currents, Misinformation, and the Proactive Heroes who are Addressing the Problem

Friday 16 June 2017 at 6:47 pm.

There’s a photo from a story we did last summer on rip currents that shocked the heck out of me when it was happening, and which still lingers in my mind.

It was during a ride along with Chet Bailey, the captain of the Chicamacomico Banks Water Rescue team, who was pointing out rip currents along the local Rodanthe beaches, as well as the signs the team had set up near especially dangerous areas.

And just when he was saying something to the effect of “Unfortunately, people don’t always heed the signs,” someone walked right past the sign in question, and dived into the ocean for a swim.

I think I asked him at the time if that was staged, (and if so, it was pretty masterfully coordinated), but he said no, and that it was a common problem, simply because people who are new to the area are typically new to rip currents as well.

This is a common sentiment among the folks who patrol the beaches – the Chicamacomico Banks Water Rescue team, the Hatteras Rescue Squad, and the National Park Service – and rip current education is starting to become a prominent topic of conversation.

It’s why the Hatteras Rescue Squad is starting a fantastic new program that provides free info to visitors, (more on that in a moment), and why more and more news sources – including the Island Free Press – are utilizing the latest technology from the National Weather Service to get the word out. (More on that too.)

“We’ve talked for years about the weekly learning curve,” says Bob Helle of the Hatteras Island Rescue Squad. “People come down on vacation for a week, and by the end of the week, they have a bit of ocean experience... But then the next group of visitors comes down, and it’s back to [square one.]”

And the consequences of not knowing what to look for can be dire.

The island is still reeling from the death of a teenage swimmer off the Frisco Beach last week, and in 2016, there were a reported eight causalities from rip currents on Hatteras and Ocracoke islands. In 2015, that number was zero.

When I talked to Chet of the Chicamacomico Banks Water Rescue team last year, he also made a comment that stayed with me about the sheer number of rip-current related calls:

“Twenty years ago, there were maybe six calls a year, and now there are 140,” he said. “I remember when I first joined, I really wanted to rescue somebody. Now I think, ‘Please... I have to catch my breath!’”

And the bad calls, which have gone up in the past year, hit the volunteers and members of Hatteras Island’s two rescue squads especially hard. The Hatteras Island Rescue Squad recently posted the following on their Facebook page: “We have had some calls that have been tough on our members. We take each rescue personally, we conduct our rescues as if we are saving our own family members. With that being said, the losses are tough.”

Simply put, rip currents can be deadly. And these tragic calls take a toll on everyone involved – from the recuse personnel on the front lines, to the readers who follow the ensuing story.

But there are some encouraging and proactive steps being taken to prevent rip current casualties, which starts first and foremost with education.

The Hatteras Island Rescue Squad recently announced that they will be providing a free weekly training session on rip currents and beach safety, which will be held every Monday morning at 9:00 a.m. at the Hatteras Island Rescue Squad station.

“Most of our calls regarding rip currents occur during the week - there’s not a high call volume on the weekends,” says Kermit Farrow, a member of the Hatteras Island Rescue Squad and the leader of the upcoming training sessions. “After going through the records, we saw that most rip current issues occur on the weekdays. So by having these sessions on Monday, we will give both those Saturday and Sunday-arriving visitors a chance to attend.”

The upcoming training program – which starts this Monday - has had massive support and encouragement from realty companies, the National Park Service, and other local organizations.

And Kermit is an ideal person to lead it.

He’s a recent graduate from North Carolina State with a degree in Marine and Coastal Science, and he’s been a volunteer with the Hatteras Island Rescue Squad for five years. Educated on ocean dynamics and processes, he’s certainly a good fit for leading the program.

“We're going to talk about rip current hazards, how rip currents form, the difference between low, moderate, and high [rip current risks], what to look for on the beach, and how to get out of them safely,” he says.

And the key points on each of these topics may not be as obvious as you’d think.

For example, I’ve been under the assumption for years that if you get caught in a rip current, the first thing you should do is to start swimming parallel to the shoreline like mad.

Turns out, that’s not always correct.

“That works if you are a good swimmer,” says Kermit. “If you don’t swim a lot, and are used to swimming in a pool, then let the current take you out, and then you can swim parallel, and towards the shore.

And in my hierarchy of rip current responses - where swimming like mad is the #1 step - my assumption was also incorrect. “First of all, do not panic,” says Kermit. “It will make you use up a lot more energy than you should.”

The classes are a great next step in what is a continual goal for local rescue teams to keep the public informed.  

And the Hatteras Island Rescue Squad and Chicamacomico Banks Water Rescue team are doing what they can to keep people up-to-speed on the sand. If it’s a high risk day, they’ll have red flags and / or signs, and while patrolling the beaches, they also talk with people one-on-one throughout the day about potential rip current risks.

But there’s also some new technology available to make identifying risky conditions even easier.

In April, the National Weather Service re-launched the seasonal Beach Forecast page, which is available in the summer months, and which indicates  the day’s risk of rip currents. (You can find it here:

This interactive map that features detailed beach forecasts for each area via colorful Beach Umbrella icons has already garnered a lot of attention  and plenty of shares on social media. 

At IFP, we’re been sharing the day’s rip current forecast when it’s at a  high level on our Facebook, and we are certainly not the only local organization or news source to do so. 

The Hatteras Island Rescue  Squad  has also been sharing ocean reports on their Facebook Page, and so has the Chicamacomico Banks Water Rescue team.

Essentially, it feels like there is a mass movement underfoot to get the word out about rip currents and what to do, and that’s a very good thing.

Following on the heels of a 2016 summer season that saw a shockingly high number of rip current related calls, it’s inspiring that our local organizations are being proactive, and are taking steps to address rip current emergencies before they have a chance to occur.

And, to be honest, it’s needed. Bob Helle is absolutely correct when he says that rip current safety has a learning curve.

Folks that come down here for a week of gorgeous beaches don’t know the ocean waters like lifelong residents do, just like I couldn’t tell you about dangerous conditions in the Great Lakes, the Pacific Ocean, or any other body of water that isn’t close to home.

And as I learned today after a brief but enlightening conversation with Kermit from the Hatteras Island Rescue Squad, even my rip current knowledge is not up to snuff.

So encourage visitors to attend the brief but enlightening training session, keep an eye out on the local rip current forecasts, (which are a fantastic addition to the array of services the NWS provides), and please feel free to thank local rescue team members whenever possible.

I can’t tell you how many rescue team volunteers I’ve chatted with over the years who appreciate the folks who approach them, ask questions, and / or say “thank you.”

And considering the long summer job they do – which includes both daily casual conversations and those occasional tragic calls – their efforts deserve to be recognized.

We have a lot of heroes on our islands – from the fire department volunteers, to the EMTs, to the folks who are actively participating in nonprofits and charities all across the island.

And the folks who patrol the beaches assisting in emergency rescues, (and / or who just politely and patiently explain to a misguided beach-goer why they shouldn’t swim in front of a “RIP CURRENT” sign), certainly earn a spot on this “heroes” list.

As the Hatteras Island Rescue Squad also publicly posted, “If you see our men and women on the beach, stop them and say hello. They love talking with visitors!”

I’ll add to that recommendation, and also encourage you to say “Thank you,” and “Job well done.”

They’re at the front lines of keeping beach-goers safe, and for the summer of 2017, they’re doing a fantastic job of being proactive.

eight comments

Elizabeth St. John

Thanks to those who are working hard to save lives. Can these education sessions be filmed? Every rental management company could place a link to the life- saving video on its web site…in a prominent spot!

Elizabeth St. John - 16-06-’17 19:27
salvo jimmy

Sort of related

salvo jimmy - 16-06-’17 21:55
Marcia Laricos

Thank you Joy for aiding in getting this important information out.

Marcia Laricos - 17-06-’17 18:08
Caroll ErsekI have been blessed

I have been blessed to travel to your beaches for the last 25 years. Thank you for this information.

Caroll ErsekI have been blessed - 18-06-’17 17:58
Chuck Allison

I’ve been in ocean rescue for thirity years as guard, officer and ems nurse. The finest rule would be: “when in doubt, don’t go out!”

Three rip-current deaths as of 6/18 in New Jersey , all at non-life guarded beaches…… careful, the ocean does not care and will kill you!

Chuck Allison - 18-06-’17 23:43

Interesting article, SJ. Thanks.

Anonymous - 19-06-’17 05:10

I think Elizabeth has a great idea. Film it and place a DVD in each rental home and strongly encourage folks to watch it…

Bob - 19-06-’17 16:13

Folks need to realize that these are not swimming beaches. Proven every season with multiple lives lost.

Bud - 21-06-’17 13:53

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