Living on the North Carolina Coast during all of the 1990s made the term “rip currents” a firm part of my vocabulary. Swimming in the ocean isn’t like swimming in a hotel pool. The water moves almost constantly in both a horizontal and vertical sense.
Wrightsville Beach, Carolina Beach and a few more barrier islands farther south are popular destinations for southeastern North Carolina residents. On a calm day, floating in gentle waves and 80-degree water is wonderful. When the wind is coming from the south, mild, salty breezes push waves onshore at an angle. Even on a very windy day, 5- to 6-foot waves are still fun for swimmers. Many times, I found myself grabbed by one of those, carried onshore and deposited on the sand, abruptly but harmlessly.
A different wind direction changes the situation. When persistent wind comes from southeast instead of south, the waves no longer ride up on the shore and run off the sand gently. In a southeast wind, they hit the shoreline head-on. Water crashing loudly onshore is acceptable. It gets dangerous where the water runs back out into deeper ocean. Narrow rivers of water flow away from the shore with great force. These flows, away from the beach and out into the sea, are rip currents.
A swimmer may be riding the waves, get dumped on the beach repeatedly and not suspect any danger. But suddenly, a wave changes into a powerful drag, pulling swimmers away from the land at surprising speed.
On this day 8 years ago, July 4th, 2013, the Wilmington, North Carolina area beaches were packed with people celebrating Independence Day. There had been rip current warnings on TV and in the news, but with many swimmers in the water, the situation appeared deceptively safe. However, many found themselves pulled away from shore. Swimmers fighting desperately against the drag were overcome by exhaustion. Six drowned at regional beaches. Myrtle Beach, South Carolina reported 98 water rescues.
It’s wise to keep an eye on the lifeguard platforms. When they display a red flag, going into the waves is risky. If a rip current grabs you while swimming, experts say not to fight it. It will carry a person a few hundred feet offshore and then stop. One can swim parallel to the beach and then return in calmer waters. Struggling against rip currents is what gets people in trouble.
Rudi Kiefer, Ph.D., is a professor emeritus of physical science at Brenau University. His column appears Sundays and at gainesvilletimes.com.