Swimmers urged to be wary of rough surf

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With the formation of a low-pressure system possibly coinciding with the arrival of thousands of Memorial Day visitors to Wrightsville’s beach strand, the town’s lifeguards want swimmers to be especially wary of ocean conditions.

Wrightsville Beach Ocean Rescue Capt. Jeremy Owens urged beachgoers to know their swimming ability, emphasizing, “The biggest thing we tell people — and it might seem obvious — but if you can’t swim, stay out of the ocean.”

That includes wading in shallow water, Owens said, or using a flotation device to compensate for lack of swimming ability. Troughs and sandbars make the ocean floor unpredictable, so, Owens said, “You could be standing in knee-deep water and take one step and be over your head.”

He also described a scenario in which a swimmer wades through a trough at low tide to reach the ankle-deep water on the sandbar. As the tide rises they attempt to wade back to shore but find the water in the trough is now over their head.

“So people who cannot swim get into trouble,” he said.

Wrightsville Beach Ocean Rescue, a squad of 32 regular guards and a number of part-time guards, man the island’s 13 lifeguard stands between 10 a.m. and 5 p.m. starting the Friday before Memorial Day. Guards will also be patrolling in two trucks and four or five ATVs, with one Jet Ski available.

They respond to a variety of issues on the beach strand and in the water, but when a large ocean swell is forecasted, as it is for Memorial Day weekend, Owens said his guards are most frequently called into action for ocean rescues.

“This weekend looks like it has the potential for high risk of rip currents,” he said.

When beachgoers arrive on the strand, he said, they should immediately check to see what color flag the lifeguards are flying from their stands.

The flags indicate risk of high surf or strong currents — red indicates high risk, yellow indicates medium, green means low. If beachgoers have questions, Owens encouraged them to talk to the lifeguards.

Several parts of the beach always have rip currents, like Johnnie Mercer’s Pier and Crystal Pier. Fixed rips, as Owens called them, tend to form around structures like piers, or the jetty at the island’s south end.

For that reason, he added, the town has installed signs warning beachgoers not to swim within 200 feet on either side of the piers. May 14, bystanders pulled a drowning victim out of the rip current at Johnnie Mercer’s Pier and gave him CPR until lifeguards arrived and restored his breathing and consciousness.

But rip currents don’t just form around structures, Owens added. They can form anywhere and in a variety of conditions and tides. A spot in the ocean where waves aren’t breaking can indicate a rip current, and because rip currents suck sediment out to sea, Owens said they usually look like “a little brown river pulling away from shore.”

If a swimmer gets caught in a rip current, they should, first and foremost, stay calm and not fight the current, Owens added. Swim to the left or right to swim out of the rip current, then to shore. If they can’t swim out of the current, they should float or tread water while waving to a lifeguard for assistance.

Bystanders who observe a swimmer caught in a rip should call 911 or get a lifeguard, Owens added. Nearby surfers can — and often have — rescued drowning victims with their boards, Owens said, but swimmers should not try to perform a rescue.

They can throw a flotation device to the victim, he added, but said, “A major concern, if a large number of people go out to try to make a rescue, is that they become a victim themselves.”

The other main issues to which lifeguards respond on holiday weekends are missing children and medical emergencies, Owens said. He advised parents to watch their children at all times on the beach and, in the case of a medical emergency, call 911 and then seek a lifeguard.

“We just want everybody to come down here and be safe,” he said.

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