24 Jul 2018
When you’re staying at the beach near Charleston, it's vital you know about one particular water safety issue: rip currents. An AP article a few years back really got my attention. It reported how over the Independence Day holiday, four able-bodied people lost their lives on beaches in Brunswick County, NC. The cause? Rip currents. I’ve covered this important subject in previous blogs, but it bears repeating. We want everyone staying here to stay safe. The story focused on a young judge and his wife and their two sons, who were enjoying the sunny weather after a stretch of rainy days. Many other folks were out swimming in the water, glad that the weather had cleared. All of a sudden chaos broke out, as numerous beachgoers got caught in rip currents. The couple entered the water to help others in distress. The husband, by all accounts a very strong swimmer, didn’t make it out alive.
What are rip currents?
First of all, they are not rip tides or undertow, where you are pulled under the water. Rip currents are channels - mini-rivers if you will, of water that rushes from the shore back out into the ocean. The current of this water runs very fast, often much faster than even the best swimmer can manage to swim against. So instead of getting pulled under the water, you are carried out to sea. In other words, rip currents are channels of water that flow out into the ocean. They can be very strong and move very fast – up to 8 miles an hour. Rips pull people away from shore, but will not pull a person under. They may be narrow, or up to over 100 yards wide. The most common reaction is to panic and try to swim against the current back to shore -- and that often leads to disaster, as it did in Brunswick County. Rip currents are most common where the sand and ocean floor are uneven, and around piers and jetties. The cause - an extra amount of water coming onshore (through high winds or big waves, or several days of rainy weather). All that extra water has to go back into the ocean somehow, and it does so via rip currents. The ironic thing is they often appear from the surface as a calm section of ocean between sets of waves, thus attracting unsuspecting swimmers. If you are coming to stay in one of our homes, we want you to be safe. Coastal meteorologists and area teachers are pretty good at educating locals (especially kids) about the dangers of rip currents. But if you are coming here from another part of the country, you may not know about rip currents and how to best handle them.
What is the answer?
The answer is counter-intuitive. Even though the water is pulling you out to sea, do not try to swim directly back to shore. Instead, swim parallel to the shore, in either direction, until you are out of the rip current - then swim back toward land. Above all, don’t panic. Stay calm, swim parallel, then back in and you’ll be fine. One thing worth noting about the situation in Brunswick County - not a single one of its beaches has lifeguards. Lifeguards obviously are trained to deal with rip currents and know what to do when they hit. One can’t help but think they would have prevented the tragedy that happened there, had lifeguards been present. A great plus if you are coming here is that both the Isle of Palms and Folly Beach have sections that are under the watchful eye of professional lifeguards. Sure enough, a couple weeks ago (July 12th), Isle of Palms lifeguards rescued four people from very strong rip currents near the IOP Park. The rescues were about 60 to 75 yards from the shore. Read the story from Live 5 News here. Another great help is warnings about dangerous conditions. Here on the Isle of Palms, the town has posted an informational sign at the main intersection. If you’re heading to the Isle of Palms from Mount Pleasant, it’s to the left as you come off the Isle of Palms Connector. The Town is great about posting warnings in red letters if there are rip currents or other dangerous conditions you should know about. According to Cole Thomas, assistant park manager at the Isle of Palms County Park, "People panic when they start to get pulled out. What we're trying to teach people to do is turn and swim parallel to the shore so you'll swim out of the rip current and you'll eventually stop feeling it pull." It's worth noting that according to park officials, an estimated 80 percent of all surf rescues are due to rip currents.
Basic tips and facts about possible rip currents
What Do Rip Currents Look Like?
• Churning, choppy water;
• Different water color;
• Foam or seaweed moving seaward;
• Break in the wave pattern.
What To Do If You Get Caught In a Rip Current?
• Don’t panic;
• Do not try to swim against the current;
• Swim along the shoreline to get out of the rip;
• Swim back to the shore diagonally (away from the rip);
• Wave for help if you are in trouble.
Other Basic Beach Safety Tips:
• Learn to swim or stay out of the water;
• Swim with a buddy and near a lifeguard;
• Enter water feet first;
• Watch your children;
• Always obey the posted signs and flags on the beach and at the lifeguard stands;
• Use sunscreen and drink water.
So when you are coming to a Charleston beach house, be informed. Please do be careful. And remember, as always, to call EP for the best in beach homes around. All best, Lowcountry Lisa your Isle of Palms vacation blogger