BOGUE BANKS — The summer tourism season is fast approaching, and first responders in the towns on Bogue Banks have advice on how visitors to the beaches can stay safe.
The summer tourism season in Carteret County usually begins Memorial Day weekend, which this year is May 25-26. Many tourists come to stay at beach towns like Emerald Isle, Indian Beach, Pine Knoll Shores and Atlantic Beach, all on Bogue Banks. In these towns, public safety officials have advice for beachgoers and ocean swimmers to have a safe visit.
One of the biggest risks for beachgoers is rip currents. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s National Weather Service’s website weather.gov/safety/ripcurrent-media, rip currents are channeled currents of water flowing away from shore at surf beaches.
Emerald Isle Fire Chief Bill Walker, Indian Beach Fire Chief Joshua Haraway and Pine Knoll Shores Fire Capt. Brooks Graham said most of the water rescues their respective departments perform each year are due to swimmers caught in rip currents and pulled away from shore.
Capt. Graham said he expects this will be a busy tourist season for Bogue Banks.
“Ocean rescues have already begun,” he said, referring to incidents in Emerald Isle, Atlantic Beach and Pine Knoll Shores. Chief Walker agreed.
“This (season) is very hard to predict,” he said. “As of right now (April 26) we’ve never had this many water rescue calls this early in the year; the water temperature is still in the low 60’s.”
Chief Haraway said on average his department gets about 30 to 40 water rescue calls per year, most due to rip currents.
“This summer will be interesting to see what happens with the tourism,” he said, “due to the fact the communities are still recovering from the hurricane damage.”
Chief Haraway was referring to damage caused by Hurricane Florence in September 2018.
The NWS notes that rip currents typically extend from near the shoreline, through the surf zone and past the line of breaking waves.
“Rip currents form when waves break near the shoreline, piling up water between the breaking waves and the beach,” the weather service said. “One of the ways this water returns to sea is to form a rip current, a narrow stream of water moving swiftly away from shore, often perpendicular to the shoreline.”
Rip currents can be as narrow at 10-20 feet or as wide as 200 feet. The length of the rip current from shore also varies; the current slows down the further it gets from shore, but some go as far as several hundred feet beyond the surf zone.
While rip current speeds can vary, some are powerful enough even an Olympic swimmer couldn’t fight against them. Swimmers caught in a rip current can be swept away from shore and out into the open ocean, where they’re at risk of drowning.
“Drowning deaths occur when people pulled offshore are unable to keep themselves afloat and swim to shore,” the weather service said. “This may be due to any combination of fear, panic, exhaustion or lack of swimming skills.”
In order to stay safe, the NWS and local public safety officials offer beachgoers advice on avoiding and escaping rip currents. Chief Haraway advises swimmers to swim as a group and stay calm in the event they’re caught in a rip current.
“Please be mindful of your surroundings and to not put yourself in a situation you may not be able to get out of.”
Capt. Graham advises swimmers to swim at beach strands with lifeguards, which on Bogue Banks are found in Atlantic Beach and in Emerald Isle. In the event a swimmer is caught in a rip current, Capt. Graham advises swimming parallel to shore to get out of a rip current. The NWS also recommends this.
“Don’t swim against the current (of a rip current),” the weather service said. “If you can’t escape, float or tread water. If you need help, yell or wave for assistance.”
Capt. Graham also advises using a flotation device, such as a boogie board, while swimming out in the ocean to avoid getting into trouble due to exhaustion.
“I’d also advise knowing where you are, in case you need to call the fire department,” he said. “All our beach accesses have letters to identify them.”
In Indian Beach, rescue cans are placed along the beach for beachgoers to be able to throw to swimmers in distress. Each can is posted with GPS coordinates and physical landmarks on a charge to help people calling for emergency services tell first responders where they are.
Chief Walker said Emerald Isle Parks and Recreation Department places rescue buoys up and down his town’s beach strand, as well.
Even if rip currents aren’t present at a beach strand, Chief Walker advises beachgoers who aren’t strong swimmers not to go into the ocean past their knees.
“If it’s rough, don’t go in at all,” he said. “If you’re not sure, stop and ask a lifeguard the current conditions. Swim with a friend. If you have children on the beach, please don’t take your eyes off them. It only takes a second for tragedy to strike.”
Rip currents aren’t the only potential hazard for beachgoers. Other weather conditions, such as storms and high winds can make the ocean unsafe for swimmers and others getting too close to the water.
All Bogue Banks towns post warning flags to alert the public to potentially hazardous conditions. These flags are typically posted at beach accesses.
Some towns use a two-flag warning system, with red and yellow triangular flags. Yellow flags mean medium hazard conditions are present and swimmers should use caution. Red flags mean high hazard conditions and while swimming isn’t prohibited, it’s not advised.
The two-flag system is typically used at public beach accesses that aren’t watched by lifeguards and at intervals along a town’s beach. A multi-flag system is used in both Emerald Isle and Atlantic Beach at the beach strands where lifeguards are posted.
In a multi-flag system, square flags of various colors are used. The meanings of these flags are as follows:
• Green Flag (Atlantic Beach only) – low hazard conditions.
• Yellow flag – moderate hazard conditions.
• Red flag – high hazard conditions; no swimming advised.
• Double red flag (Emerald Isle only) – beach is closed to ocean swimming.
• Red flag with black box (Atlantic Beach only) – tropical storm warning.
• Double red flags with black boxes (Atlantic Beach only) – hurricane warning; waters closed to public use.
• Purple flag – dangerous marine life present.
• Black flag (Pine Knoll Shore only) – ocean swimming is prohibited.
Chief Walker also offers the following advice for beachgoers:
• If you’re not a strong swimmer, don’t go into the ocean past your knees. If conditions are rough, don’t go in at all.
• If you’re not sure if swimming conditions are safe, ask a lifeguard.
• Swim with a friend.
• If you have children on the beach, don’t take your eyes off them.
Contact Mike Shutak at 252-726-7081 ext. 206, email firstname.lastname@example.org; or follow on Twitter at @mikesccnt.