Wrightsville Beach lifeguards and members of the U.S. Coast Guard promoted rip current safety for the media, emphasizing that the current are deceptively powerful while staging a mock rescue for the cameras.
“The ocean is an inherently dangerous place. Even Olympic swimmers can swim against a rip current,” said Wrightsville Beach Ocean Rescue Lt. John Scull. “Rip currents can sneak up on swimmers and catch them unaware. The majority of our rescues are rip current related.”
In the demonstration held on Friday, June 28, members of Wrightsville Beach Ocean Rescue rescued one their colleagues who feigned drowning about 20 yards offshore. With the first lifeguard signalling for help, the demonstration showed how a roving lifeguard on a four wheeler can be brought in to assist the rescue, allowing a lifeguard to remain in the stand to keep watch on other swimmers.
Keeping watch over the beach, even during a rescue, is key, Scull said, noting that there would be 18 lifeguards on duty during the holiday weekend to watch over approximately 10,000 visitors to the beach. Wrightsville Beach lifeguards make on average one to two rescues a day, with some days being busier than others. Wrightsville Beach Ocean Rescue makes on average 300 rescues a year over the 100 days that the town employees lifeguards on the beach, Scull said.
Most of the danger from rip currents occur after swimmers panic and become exhausted fighting against the current, making them unable to keep themselves afloat.
Lifeguards recommend that swimmers caught in rip currents remain calm and conserve energy, instead of swimming against the current. Swimmers should swim parallel with the beach until they are out of the current, where they can then swim back to shore.
If possible, if a bystander sees a drowning victim, they should allow a lifeguard to attempt the rescue instead of trying to assist themselves, since the drowning victim could take down the attempting rescuer as well.
“The biggest concern with someone going out to make the rescue themselves is that they become the victim,” Scull said.
However, if a witness to a drowning can get a raft, board or other flotation device to the victim, that is the best option for a rescue attempt, he said.
If caught in a rip current, the best option for a swimmer is to attempt to float and tread water until they are out of the current, which tend to be narrow, Scull said.
“The best thing to do is relax, lean back and treat water if you can,” he said. “With the salt in the water, you float better in the ocean than you do in a pool.”
U.S. Coast Guard members from Station Wrightsville Beach were also on hand to discuss rip current safety. While local lifeguards are the first responders for these kinds of rescues, the Coast Guard can be called in to assist if the lifeguards need help, said Chief Jason Gazzillo of the U.S. Coast Guard.
“It’s important to help keep people educated about the dangers of the ocean,” Gazzillo said.