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Midway Fire and Rescue crews practice surf rescue techniques at North Litchfield.

Beaches: Second tropical storm raises warnings of rip currents

By Matt Lee
Coastal Observer

The passage of a second tropical storm along the South Carolina coast in as many weeks had officials warning about the potential of strong rip currents along the beaches.

The National Weather Service initially said high risk of rip currents that followed Tropical Storm Colin on Tuesday could continue later into the week. Although it has since downgraded the risk, the agency is promoting awareness of the fast-moving currents.

Rip currents flow from the beach toward the ocean against the breaking waves. While most rip currents are not strong enough to pull people into open water, they tend to change rapidly and their pull can become strong enough to force even an Olympic-quality swimmer out to sea.

Greg Leumy of Johnstown, Tenn., witnessed the strength of a rip current first-hand 30 years ago. “I saw from the beach that someone was being pulled away from the beach. They ended up drowning, and I learned the power of the ocean,“ said Leumy, who was watching his son ride a boogie board on the beach at Pawleys Island last week.

Over 100 people are killed by rip currents each year and account for over 80 percent of beach rescues, according to the U.S. Lifesaving Association.

Leumy and his wife, LeAnn Hughes, make sure that their son Connor, 11, is always aware of his surroundings when they are at the beach. “We always test the water first to see how strong of a pull there is. If it is too strong we won’t go in. We also make sure that Connor is always watching us on the beach in case he starts to get pulled down the beach,” said Hughes

High tide is not the most dangerous time for rip currents said Paul Gayes, the director for the School of Coastal and Marine Systems Science at Coastal Carolina University. “When it is low tide, the pressure builds up more along the sandbars as the water tries to go back to sea and this can lead to strong rips when the sandbar breaks,” Gayes said

Midway Fire and Rescue tests their crews every year to make sure that they are capable of swimming out through the ocean to rip current victims and bring them back to shore safely.

Battalion Chief Carr Gilmore has spent over two decades with Midway said the most important information to share with emergency responders is the exact location and the number of people in the water.

“Whether the water looks choppy or glassy, whether it’s sunny or stormy, a rip current can happen on any beach at any time,” Gilmore said.

The easiest way to identify a rip current from the beach is to stand back and watch the way the foam moves on top of the water. If the foam comes up, moves parallel to the beach into a U shape and jets back out the see, then it is probably a rip.

Rip currents also make the area look like there are not many waves, so adults will take children to those areas thinking it is a calm spot, without knowing they are putting their children in the middle of a rip.

The key lesson to understand is that a rip current does not pull people underwater, just out to sea. If caught in a rip current swimmers should remain calm, wait for the current to stop moving and then swim parallel to the beach to move out of the area of the current and then swim back to shore.

“If they are more dangerous in certain areas then there should definitely be more posted warnings,“ said Heather Kavahaugn, who has lived in Georgetown for five years and frequents the south end of Pawleys Island with her two children. She had only heard about rip currents but never knew anything about how to see them, avoid them or escape them.

Fighting against the current is the cause of most rip current deaths, as swimmers will become too tired to stay above water and drown.

“When in a rip current, all you feel is the motion, drifting further and further out until the sea floor gets away from you,“ said Shane Kingsford, a Midway firefighter-EMT who received the Medal of Valor for saving two people from a rip current in 2014.

Kingsford said that it is quite common for beachgoers to try and save someone caught in a current and end up being pulled out themselves. This led to a rescue in 2007 where Kingsford and his colleague Scott Matthews rescued six people off the south end of Pawleys Island. Five men had tried to save a girl who had been caught in a rip and ended up stuck along with her.

Should someone get caught in a rip current and require rescue, Gilmore advises that they try their best to stay calm and not fight the rescuers when.

Being informed is very important when it comes to beach safety, said Gayes. There are signs posted on many beaches that have rip currents, there is an abundance of information on the internet and the National Weather Service will have a rip advisory when the rip currents are particularly strong.

“The most important thing is to educate yourself on rip currents and observe any safety warnings on the radio or on the beaches,” said Kingsford.

“If beach-goers are unsure, they should seek out a lifeguard or a surfer to chat with them about the ocean that day and where any rip currents can be seen,” Gayes said.

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