Rip Currents Cause Busy Week For Beach Patrol

OCEAN CITY – Heavy surf
conditions, coupled with a prolonged heat wave and peak July crowds, had the
Ocean City Beach Patrol (OCBP) busy last week with 756 rescues recorded during
the seven-day period including nearly 600 on last Sunday alone.

While it is certainly
not unusual to have dangerous rip currents form in the ocean in mid- to late
July, the spike in the number of swimmers needing to be rescued by the Ocean
City Beach Patrol last week was a bit of a statistical anomaly. Over the
seven-day period that ended last Sunday, 756 swimmers caught n dangerous rip
currents, or an average of about 108 per day, had to be pulled from the surf by
the OCBP.

A large number of
rescues occurred last Sunday when OCBP surf rescue technicians went in the
ocean to save struggling swimmers 596 times. With rip currents forming up and
down the beach for much of the week, the OCBP had its first real test of the
summer season. By comparison, the 756 rescues during the third week of July
were nearly 10 times the number for the third week of June, which came in at
just 79, according to OCBP Lieutenant Ward Kovacs.

“After a week like that,
you look around at everybody and say ‘I guess we have no more rookies out
here,’” he said. “That was as busy a stretch as we’re likely to see this summer
and our crews are pretty much battle-tested now.”

According to Kovacs,
about 90 percent of all rescues performed by the OCBP are related to rip
currents, a dangerous condition typically formed when high tides breach the
sandbars along the coast and have to go back out. The water flowing out from
the beach finds a low spot in the sandbar and creates rip currents. The
swirling currents often occur close to shore and are not always clearly visible
to unsuspecting swimmers, who find themselves caught in the current.

A distresses swimmer’s
first instinct is to swim toward shore, but that often compounds the problem.
OCBP surf rescue technicians often preach the importance of swimming parallel
to the beach and away from the rip currents. First and foremost, the OCBP
teaches swimmers not to panic when caught in a rip.

“We always say the ‘r’
in rip current stands for relax,” said Kovacs. “In most cases, if a swimmer
doesn’t panic, he or she can calmly swim out of danger. The “i” in rip current
stands for ‘I need help.’ Our guards are trained to recognize when a swimmer is
in distress.”

Kovacs said last week’s
spike in rescues was likely caused by the combination of a variety of factors.
First, a series of low-pressure systems that passed off the coast increased
wave activity and created the dangerous rip currents. In addition, a week of
air temperatures pushing the 100-degree mark forced more sunbathers into the

“All of these factors
lined up to create the dangerous situation,” he said. “The water temperatures
have crept way up, causing more people to get into the water, while the air
temperatures on the beach were stifling hot. The crowds in mid- to late July
are reaching their peaks anyway, and more and more people are getting in the
ocean because of the weather conditions and water temps. Mix in the rip
currents and you can see the recipe for disaster that was cooked up last week.”

The problem could have
been much worse if those hundreds of thousands of swimmers were going into the
ocean at times when the OCBP was not on duty. The OCBP’s slogan is “keep your
feet in the sand until a lifeguard’s in the stand” and the message was perhaps
no more relevant than last week when hundreds had to be pulled from the surf.

According to Kovacs,
recent statistics show the chances of drowning drops to one in 18 million when
lifeguards are on duty on the beach. Kovacs advised visitors and residents to
only swim when the guards are on duty, and when possible, swim near a lifeguard
stand, especially when conditions are dangerous.

Of course, getting
swimmers to listen to the lifeguards and heed their advice often presents
challenges. Many so-called accomplished swimmers often ignore OCBP warnings about
surf conditions or rip current dangers. Others are oblivious to the warnings
directed specifically at them, according to Kovacs.

“One of the best pieces
of advice we give out when we do those beach safety seminars is any time you
hear the whistle blow, turn around and look at the guard,” he said. “People
often hear the whistle and their instinct is to look out in the ocean to see
who it is directed toward or who is further out then them, but a lot of times
they don’t realize it is them we are trying to communicate with.”

After the 596 rescues on
Sunday alone last weekend, conditions improved and the number of incidents
dropped back to normal accordingly. By mid-week, the number of rescues reported
had been reduced to double digits for the rest of the week, which isn’t to
suggest the danger is over.

“We’re getting into a
period of the summer when rip currents typically form more frequently,” he
said. “We’re bound to see some tropical storm activity at some point and the
waves just naturally get bigger as we roll through July and into August. On top
of that, we’re getting into the part of the summer when the crowds are reaching
their peak, which only contributes to the danger.”