'Know Before You Go'

Town resident Danny Shell, right, hands out ocean safety information to Mark Pearson of Iowa, second from right, who was in Emerald Isle with his family Wednesday. (Brad Rich photo)

EMERALD ISLE — Town resident Danny Shell kicked off his “Know Before You Go” ocean safety education and hazard awareness campaign Wednesday, handing out cards with safety information and talking to 20 beachgoers on an oceanfront deck at the Holiday Trav-L Park.

The facility is owned by businessman and former Emerald Isle Mayor Ronnie Watson.

The town has not endorsed Mr. Shell’s project, but he has met with officials, and Town Manager Matt Zapp recently said his efforts are “interesting and have merit.”

Mr. Shell, a retired Maryland Highway Patrol officer and former Emerald Isle beach patrol/ocean rescue officer, plans to return to the same site every Wednesday at 9 a.m. through September.

“Knowledge is power,” he said to the group of about five families who showed up. “If you know (ocean) conditions and safety (information), you have the power to save your own lives and the lives of others.”

Mr. Shell is working with town businesses to create T-shirts, caps and other items with safety information and awareness slogans and plans to create a nonprofit company to fund his campaign.

Wednesday, he stressed the need for all those who enter the ocean to know how to spot rip currents, to understand and obey the town’s ocean-condition flags, to ask lifeguards or beach patrol police officers about the conditions if a flag is not visible, to swim near lifeguards whenever possible and to use flotation devices, preferably those approved by the U.S. Coast Guard. Flotation devices, he said, are especially important for small children.

Mr. Shell also encouraged swimmers to know the tide schedule, since rip currents become more likely two hours before high tide and two hours before low tide. He also said the best way to do that locally is to download the Emerald Isle smartphone app, which is available for free download on the town website, emeraldisle-nc.org/emerald-isle-app.

Mr. Shell praised town officials’ efforts to increase ocean safety in the wake of four rip current-related drownings this spring and said he’s not trying to take away from similar efforts by others, including resident Suzie Van Guilder, who is collecting new and used life jackets to make available to swimmers at town lifeguard stands at the two major beach accesses.

He said he hopes the town will continue its own efforts, including putting up new poles to fly the ocean-condition flags, which range from yellow (normal, use caution) to red (conditions are hazardous, swimming not advised), to double red (high hazard, don’t enter without flotation devices, $100 fines possible for violators). There’s also a purple flag that warns of sharks or other potentially harmful marine animals.

Mr. Shell also said he hopes the town will find ways to help beachgoers know exactly where they are on the strand, so if they call 911 for emergency assistance, first responders will have a clear understanding of where to go.

“The town has 12 miles of beach and there are not lifeguards everywhere,” he said, although he noted there are also four lifeguards on ATVs who roam the beach.

The town’s lifeguards, he said, are excellent and well trained under the guidelines of the U.S. Lifesaving Association. The town’s lifeguard program, run by the fire department, is certified by USLA, and all of the drownings in town occurred before lifeguards began working in mid-to-late May.

One person who attended the session Wednesday morning was Mark Pearson, who was with his wife and four children. They were in Emerald Isle for the first time, visiting from Iowa.

They had all been in the ocean already, without any problems. At the time of the session Wednesday, yellow flags were flying, but those changed to red later in the day and into Thursday.

Mr. Pearson said his family loves the beach and goes fairly often and added that “we know some about rip currents,” but “are happy to learn more.” He called the checklist card Mr. Shell provided “very helpful.”

Another person at the talk Wednesday was visitor Roger Michaels, who said he and his family had been to Emerald Isle once before.

“It’s a beautiful place,” he said. “We’ve heard about the drownings, and we always pay attention to lifeguards at any beach. But I think it’s great that he (Mr. Shell) is doing this. Anything anybody can do to make people more aware of ocean hazards is a good thing.”

Mr. Shell said there are at least two ways, recommended by various experts, to escape a rip current.

For years, the main advice has been to swim parallel to the beach to escape the rip, since the currents are fast but not wide. Lately, others have suggested floating with the rip current until it releases its grip.

He said he personally prefers, if possible, to swim parallel, with the wind, but added, “if you are comfortable with floating out, fine.”

A key to swimming out of a rip, he said, is to note, before entering the water, the direction of the wind, which generally creates a “sweep” of water east or west along Emerald Isle’s south-facing beach. It’s always unwise, he said, to try to swim against that sweep.

Mr. Shell said he was encouraged by the size of the gathering Wednesday morning, but hopes more people will participate in coming weeks.

“I’m not getting paid for this,” he said. “I care about … lives.”

He thanked Mr. Watson for allowing him to use the deck at his popular resort, which is at the intersection of Coast Guard Drive and Reed Drive.

Contact Brad Rich at 252-864-1532; email Brad@thenewstimes.com; or follow on Twitter @brichccnt.

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