What To Do In Shore Break Conditions

Ryan Cowder

Special To The Dispatch

OCEAN CITY — Riding waves is fun. It is undoubtedly one of the main reasons many people come to the beach for a vacation. Whether it is body surfing, boogie boarding, or surfing at one of our surfing beaches, riding the waves is one of the least expensive and fun things you can do at the beach. However, each season we have several weeks when we have increased shore break in Ocean City and this type of wave is not meant for riding. In fact, riding shore break can cause severe injury, paralysis, and even death.

Shore break is when waves continue to build as they approach the beach before breaking in shallow water or actually breaking directly on the beach. Shore break occurs because of the shape and depths of the sea floor bottom. Waves only break in water that is 1.3 times the height of the wave. At or near high tide in Ocean City the waves never meet a depth this shallow until they are almost on the beach. And when the wave gets to shallow water their height increases. So a three-foot wave can become a five- or six-foot wave that will then pound the beach. Furthermore, the energy of a three-foot wave has been calculated to have 10kW of energy, which is equivalent to the energy of a small car at full throttle. The point to be made here is that riding shore break is very dangerous. The wave propels your body with great amounts of energy and then your body almost immediately hits wet sand, which is like hitting concrete.

The Ocean City Beach Patrol always advises people not to body surf or boogie board in shore break, but people do not always listen. The sad fact is that every summer we take over 100 people off the beach on backboards or with neck collars. Some of the injuries sustained are minor although even an abrasion to the forehead or a bloody nose is treated as the most serious spinal injury as a precaution. In many cases the injury sustained is minor (90 percent) and often the person returns to the beach later that day. In other cases it may simply be a pulled muscle or a bruise and will equal a spoiled vacation, but they may be more serious and will affect the person for the rest of their lives.

Many of the most serious injuries (greater than 90 percent) that occur in shore break are 30-50 year old males. This age and gender demographic is more likely to exhibit poor decision-making in the surf, furthermore, at this age range the body becomes more fragile (reduced flexibility of the spine) and more susceptible to injury. In 18 years of lifeguarding, I have seen many men in this demographic leave the beach that will probably never walk again. However, I have not responded to a serious neck injury sustained by a female. I am not saying it has never happened, however, the statistics show men are more likely to take a risk in this situation and sustain serious injury.

If you have any questions about whether the waves are safe for boogie boarding or body surfing, please talk to a lifeguard. Our lifeguards are trained to assess the surf condition and will gladly give you information about the ocean conditions. Remember: “when in doubt, don’t go out”, and “Keep your feet in the sand until the lifeguard’s in the stand”.

Captain’s Note: The most common culprit of neck injuries results from swimmers that are body surfing or body boarding incorrectly or in unsafe conditions. The proper technique for riding a wave is get in front of the wave so it is pushing you out in front and finish your ride before running out of water. Body boarding on the top of a breaking wave may cause you to be propelled to the ocean floor (we call this going over the falls). To prevent this, stay on the rear half of the board and if you need to bailout, go off the back of the board. The proper way to body surf a wave is to have your hands out in front of your body; this allows for more control of movement in the water. The most dangerous condition exists when we are experiencing shore break. NEVER ride a wave during shore break conditions or play in the impact zone! The other activity that is responsible for the remainder of Head and Neck injuries is when someone dives into shallow water or strikes the bottom with their head while attempting to dive under a breaking wave. Remember to always check the depth of the water with your feet not your head.

Although education and prevention are the primary focus of the beach patrol mission, surf rescue technicians (lifeguards) are well trained and prepared to handle severe neck and back injuries (although we prefer preventing injuries before they occur). Our beach patrol developed and modified a technique of removing victims with suspected neck or back injuries out of deep and/or shallow water. The technique has been refined over many years of training and usage from its introduction as a technique developed in Hawaii. The modified technique is unique to our agency, but has developed with input from the medical community and emergency providers. It has been approved by MIEMS as a state standard with the Ocean City Beach Patrol as the only organization that is certified to teach other first responders and organizations in this technique. We have recently been contact by one of the largest year round Beach Patrols in California and they have requested training materials for our technique which they feel is more effective that what their current protocols are. They have even indicated a desire to make our procedure the National standard.

On land it is always best not to move a person who may have a back injury. In the ocean the movement of the waves makes leaving the victim in the surf to possibly sustain more injuries impossible. Using backboards in the surf zone can actually cause more damage to a victim. Beach patrol guards are taught how to effectively and carefully extract victims from the surf who are suspected to have serious spinal injuries. Guards work as a team to carry a victim to safety while minimizing movement to the head, neck and back. Never underestimate the power of the ocean, keep yourself and your loved ones safe by always checking with the SRT on duty about daily surf conditions at your beach!

Because of the seriousness and frequency of water-related spinal injuries throughout the world, the Ocean City Beach Patrol has assisted several television networks to produce stories about the dangers associated with head, neck and back injuries at the beach. To view these segments and learn more about shore break and how to prevent these injuries, visit our website at www.ococean.com/ocbp and click on the Safety Button.

(The writer has been with the Beach Patrol for 18 years and is currently a sergeant. He is an assistant principal at Stephen Decatur High School.)