OCEAN CITY — After six drowning deaths during the month of July in waterways across Maryland, state officials this week issued a dire warning to swimmers to exercise caution, but a variety of factors including cool ocean water temperatures and the lack of rip currents have kept Ocean City conspicuously absent from the list of fatal incidents.
The tragic drowning of a 25-year-old Delaware man in the Susquehanna River last weekend was the sixth in Maryland during the month of July and the 12th overall for the year to date, doubling the number over the same period last year. However, despite the hundreds of thousands of residents and visitors enjoying the ocean and back bays in the resort, Ocean City has not seen a single drowning accident this season.
In fact, the number of rescues by the Ocean City Beach Patrol this summer has dropped 37 percent from last summer’s rate. According to Beach Patrol Captain Butch Arbin, through the end of last weekend, his crews had made 1,357 rescues thus far this summer, which is down from the 2,162 rescues over the same period last year.
According to Arbin, a variety of factors have contributed to the significant drop in the number of rescues this summer including cool or downright cold ocean water temperatures that have persisted during the season. With a cool, wet June, ocean temperatures inshore didn’t rise as quickly as they typically do and even during the recent run of hot weather, a phenomenon known as upwelling has caused dramatic fluctuations in water temperatures.
Arbin said a pattern has developed throughout the summer where the ocean current has consistently flowed south to north and the wind direction has also been fairly consistent, each of which have contributed to upwelling. Hot weather and the sun warm up the shallow water near shore, but the prevailing winds and currents push the warm water off the top of the surface, allowing much colder water to push in close to shore.
“In my 41 years on the beach patrol, I’ve never seen cold water temps like this for such an extended period of time,” he said. “We haven’t seen any tropical depressions that push warm water from the gulfstream close to shore. Any near shore water warmed by the sun gets blown off the surface by the wind allowing colder water to push in. Upwelling can cause a drop in water temperature by as much as 20 degrees overnight, and while we haven’t seen those extremes, we are seeing cold water temperatures for extended periods of time.”
Naturally, the colder the water, the fewer people who venture into the ocean for extended periods of time. Of course, fewer people in the water mean fewer opportunities for incidents and a drop in the number of rescues for the beach patrol.
“The people that are here are enjoying the beach but spending much less time in the water,” Arbin said.
While the beach patrol scans the ocean during the day, in past years most of the significant injuries and even drowning incidents have occurred in the evening or night hours when the guards are off duty for the day. However, with cooler water temperatures and chilly nighttime temperatures, those incidents have dropped significantly this season.
“Even during that real hot stretch, it was cool enough on the beach in the evening that people were wearing sweatshirts and pants,” said Arbin. “The cool evening temperatures, especially around the water, have kept people out of the ocean after we go off duty and there are fewer people venturing into the water. We’ve been very fortunate this summer. Even during the recent heat wave, it’s been pleasant by the water.”
Perhaps more importantly, the prevailing ocean conditions this summer have meant fewer days of large waves and rip currents, which often contribute to the number of incidents and rescues. With a few exceptions, the summer season has been largely devoid of rip currents and consequently, the number of incidents declined.
“We’ve had far fewer incidents of people getting caught in rip currents this season,” said Arbin. “I’m not going to say it’s been a lake out there, because there have been plenty of days with strong currents and big shore breaks, but it has been much calmer. We haven’t seen any tropical storms thus far that churn up the ocean and create dangerous rip currents.”
Arbin said rip currents are particularly dangerous in the evening hours when guards are not manning the stands. Even after the guards sign off for the day and wave people in from the ocean, the beach patrol still patrols the beach on quads to respond to incidents in the evening hours. While there have still been some after-hours incidents, they haven’t been as serious as years past.
“We’ve had a few this summer,” he said. “The difference is we haven’t seen the strong rip currents for the most part. In a strong rip current, even the strongest swimmers become exhausted quickly and we might not have 10 minutes to get to them but more like two minutes. Those eight minutes are often the difference between life and death.”
While the number of rescues is down dramatically and the summer has been relatively calm for the beach patrol, there have been some statistical anomalies. For example, last Friday, the beach patrol made 244 rescues, the single highest number for one day all summer. In addition, last Sunday in the area of 18th Street, the beach patrol responded to a middle-aged man floating face down in the ocean near shore.
Because of the lack of any obvious dangerous conditions such as a large shore break or rip current, Arbin said the guards treated the incident initially as a potential medical emergency. The man was brought to shore and CPR was performed until his pulse was restored. He was taken by ambulance to PRMC in Salisbury where it was confirmed the victim had a C2 fracture in his neck.
“That incident just illustrates how dangerous the ocean can be and reaffirms the need to swim only when the guards are on the stands,” said Arbin. “There were no apparent dangerous conditions and nobody on a crowded beach saw what happened to him, and yet he had a serious fracture in his neck and became unconscious. So even though we haven’t seen too many days of rip currents or large shore breaks, it’s still dangerous and we can’t emphasize enough the need to use caution and swim only when the guards are on the stands, even on the calmest of days.”