OCEAN CITY – With the remnants of what was Hurricane Bertha still churning way out in the Atlantic, the Ocean City Beach Patrol has spent more time in the water than on their stands in the last week, recording 1,500 rescues in a seven-day period dating back to last Wednesday.
Although the center of the storm never got closer than several hundred miles away, its effects created a perfect storm of sorts inshore with heavy surf, dangerous rip currents and big shore breaks at high tide. As luck would have it, the current tide cycle put high tide right in the middle of the busiest time of the afternoon on the beach, compounding the problem.
Not only did Bertha create dangerous surf conditions in Ocean City, but the record-setting storm did so for a prolonged time, which contributed to the astounding rescue totals piled up by the Beach Patrol over the last week or so. According to the Weather Channel, Bertha is the longest-lived named storm in July on record at 14 days and counting as of yesterday. Although it has been downgraded to a tropical storm, Bertha was also the second longest-lived hurricane ever. By comparison, Katrina, although obviously a much more severe storm, remained a hurricane for just seven days or about half as long.
“It’s like dropping a pebble in the middle of a pond,” said Beach Patrol Captain Butch Arbin this week. “The ripples fan out for hundreds of miles and you get a lot more water – millions of gallons more – coming into the beach. The more water that comes onto the beach, the more that has to go back out. It finds a low spot in the sandbar and creates rip currents.”
Arbin said this week his crews made 1,500 rescues in a seven-day period dating back to last Wednesday, July 9, including peak totals of 415 last Friday, 462 last Saturday and 323 last Sunday. On Monday, skies were cloudy and the forecast called for rain, which kept the number of beachgoers down and the number of rescues dropped back down to 36, but on Tuesday, the rescue total spiked to 247. In addition, there were 16 calls for an ambulance from the beach on Tuesday, although not all were related to injuries in the surf.
At 1,500 rescues in seven days, the average each day was 214, but that figure includes the first day in the sample, July 9, when no rescues were made, and the second day, July 10, when just 17 rescues were made. On the peak day last Saturday when 462 rescues were made during the seven-and-a-hours the beach patrol mans their stands, the average was 62 rescues per hour or just over one every minute.
While it’s not unusual, and somewhat expected, to have rip currents appear during the summer months when ocean swimming is at its peak, the effects of Bertha out in the Atlantic increased their frequency and severity, according to Arbin, who attributed around 90 percent of the recent rescues to the surf phenomena. Other problems were caused by the big shore break caused when large waves break directly on the beach during high tide.
“The shore break was one of the biggest problems we dealt with over the last week,” he said. “We saw a lot of people getting picked up and slammed down on the beach resulting in serious injuries – head and neck injuries, dislocations, broken bones etc.”
While not all of the injuries were severe, Arbin said the Beach Patrol is proactive when dealing with potential head, neck and back injuries.
“If we see bloody noses or forehead abrasions, we’re treating them as potential neck injuries,” he said. “If someone hit their head on the bottom with enough force to bloody their nose or scrape their head, then they likely hurt their neck or back. We put them all on a backboard until we can evaluate them. Many are back in the water later that day, but others are more seriously injured.”
While the Beach Patrol was making record numbers of saves, there were plenty of stories of private citizens doing their part in the ocean over the last week and more than a few of the rescues occurred during the hours the Beach Patrol was not officially on duty.
For example, local resident Dan King, whose family has owned Kingie’s Cotton Candy on the Boardwalk just across from the pier building for decades, helped rescue four swimmers in big trouble near the Inlet last Saturday night in the span of about 10 minutes in two eerily similar incidents.
King was at work at the family business around 5:30 last Saturday evening when he decided to go surfing with his daughter after checking the waves. As the pair approached the Inlet jetty, King’s daughter pointed out two men who appeared to be in serious danger in the water.
“They were way out past the end of the jetty and even further out than the end of the pier,” he said. “One big guy was really struggling and was about to go under, and the other guy apparently swam out to help him, but they both ended up in trouble. The big guy was pushing the other guy under in an attempt to keep his own head above water.”
King paddled out to the troubled men on his 9’6” surfboard, got off and helped the two men cling to the side long enough for them to catch their collective breath. King then got the first man onto the board and he and the other victim swam along side, pushing the man to safety on the beach. With that crisis over, King returned to the water to go surfing, but a similar scenario unfolded a short time later in practically the same spot.
“I went back out to surf and not 10 minutes later I heard two men screaming ‘help, help’ and I saw two guys in virtually the same situation as the first two,” he said. “I paddled over to them and they were really in trouble. They had exhausted every bit of their energy and were starting to sink.”
King repeated his rescue procedure and got the two struggling men safely to the beach. He was not certain of their condition, but when he returned to the water, he could see a Beach Patrol quad drive up as well as an ambulance. Despite making four rescues in about 10 minutes, King was reluctant to assume the hero’s mantle.
“I didn’t do anything that was a big deal or that somebody else in my position wouldn’t do,” he said. “It was more a matter of me being in the right place at the right time to help them.”
King, who is 53, said he has been surfing since he was 15, but certainly does not consider himself an avid surfer. Prior to going out to surf last Saturday, he had only been surfing one other time thus far this year.
“If I hadn’t been there, I don’t know what would have happened to those guys,” he said. “There were plenty of people on the beach, but nobody was rushing out there because of fear for their own safety. The funny thing is, I almost never go out there surfing anymore, but for some reason that day, I just felt like I wanted to go out there. It didn’t hurt that the swell was so good.”