Have a Beach Smart Summer


The best way to stay safe and happy while visiting the Outer Banks is to remember three things: do not underestimate the power of the ocean, do not overestimate your swimming abilities, and no matter what you’re doing outside, do not ever forget the sunscreen.

Beaches along the Outer Banks are some of the most beautiful on the Eastern Seaboard, but they are fronting waters steered daily by powerful currents and changeable winds that are constantly remolding sand bars. And although we’re not in the tropics, the sun here can be strong. Especially if you haven’t been at the beach in a while, make sure to be extra vigilant with sun protection. Unfortunately, sun-fried tourists are a common sight in the summer. Severe sunburn can happen rather quickly if you fall asleep out in the open on the beach, so use an umbrella and slather on that sunscreen before snoozing! There are plenty of remedies available right next to the sunscreen that will alleviate a painful burn, but aloe vera applied as soon as possible is a proven cure that relieves the pain as well as helps heal the skin and prevent blisters.

Look for a break in the wave pattern and a change in the water color to spot a rip current funneling out to sea. Photo courtesy www.ripcurrents.noaa.gov

Look for a break in the wave pattern and a change in the water color to spot a rip current funneling out to sea. Photo courtesy www.ripcurrents.noaa.gov

Sunburn is not a life-threatening risk. Atlantic currents can be. The ocean off the Outer Banks is dynamic and dramatic. That’s the opposite of calm and predictable, so keep that in mind when you decide to take a dip. Sometimes – especially after storms – holes are punched in the sandbars, resulting in treacherous rip currents, which are the biggest cause of drowning in the ocean. Even when the ocean looks calm, it can be deceptive. Visitors need to acquaint themselves with basic knowledge of conditions and how to stay safe before entering the water. The U.S. Lifesaving Association reports 80 percent of all ocean rescues are related to
rip currents.

KH-LifeguardI refer to it as being ‘beach smart,’” said Cole Yeatts, director of ocean rescue in Kitty Hawk.

Most importantly, he said, a person has to realize that swimming in a pool is a whole different ballgame than swimming or even playing in the ocean. Knowing the hazards and understanding their own skill and limitations go a long way in preventing problems in the ocean. Change is a constant in the weather here, and ocean conditions are simply the liquid version of the weather. If you’re swimming in it, know the conditions, and respect them. Even when rip current warnings haven’t been issued, currents can still be strong enough to pull you away. Waves might not look too big, but they can still knock a small person off their feet. Be careful when standing on sandbars – there can be a deep hole right next to it, and there’s a good chance it will be in a rip current.

When you see lifeguards stroll along the shoreline first thing in the morning studying the surf, they’re looking for indicators of rip currents which can materialize quickly.

“It’s all science,” Yeatts said. “When we walk out on the beach, we know what we’re looking at.” But anyone can – and should – learn to recognize rip currents, he said.

As Yeatts described it, the Outer Banks is essentially a very large sandbar. Waves rolling toward the beach will break when the water depth gets to be about 1.3 times their height – that’s why the breakers are at the bar. So when you see waves breaking, you know the water is shallower than where they’re not breaking. When there’s a hole in the bar, the waves will not break at that spot. The water, however, is funneled through the hole, creating a powerful river – a rip current. Especially with the help of polarized sunglasses, rips are evident from their line of outgoing foam or sandy brown water.

RedFlagDon’t mistake a rip for the sideway current. The long shore, or littoral, current is the force that pulls you up or down the beach, but the danger is that they can “feed” a swimmer into a powerful rip. The rip current is what pulls you out to sea and away from the beach. The National Weather Service reports at least seven fatalities were due to rip currents along the North Carolina coast in 2013, with a total of at least 56 deaths since 2000.

Every beach has its hazards, Yeatts said, whether it’s rocks or jetties or reefs. But because of our mutable sand-bars, the Outer Banks’ hazard is rip currents. According to the National Weather Service, rip curents are the No. 2 environmental cause of death in the U.S., with heat-related causes being No. 1.

One of the highest risks for rip currents is not when the surf is super big from a storm; it’s after the storm has departed, and the sea has calmed. Rip currents seem to favor more organized conditions when waves are breaking.

Red flags are posted when rip currents are especially dangerous. “When we have high hazard conditions,” Yeatts said, “it’s to be taken seriously.”

But beaches can’t be closed every time there are rip currents, so swimmers need to take precautions. Whenever possible, swim near a lifeguard. And make it a rule to never swim alone.

If you do feel yourself being pulled seaward, immediately tell yourself to stop fighting against the current. Then float to calm yourself – saltwater is very buoyant – and start waving to get attention. If you’re capable, swim parallel to shore until you’re out of the rip – typically about 20 to 40 yards.

Another major beach hazard, Yeatts said, is spinal cord injuries from people boogie boarding or body surfing on a shore break, that is, when the wave breaks close to the beach. With our angled shorelines, the risk is that the people will be propelled by a wave to the beach and their head will be jammed into the sand. “When we surf on a shore break, there’s no cushion,” Yeatts said. ■

Other summer hazards on the Outer Banks include:

Mom-Sunscreen■    Paddleboarders can be blown out to sea when there’s a west wind, and their bodies act like a sail. If that happens, lie down on the board to get out of the wind and use your board like a surf board to paddle back to the beach.

■    People using floating rafts, boards and tubes should also be aware of the direction of the wind, and wear a harness or leash. “We always tell people you should never float where you can’t swim,” Yeatts said. Sometimes people get so far from shore, they have to be retrieved by a jetski.

■    Jellyfish stings are usually not dangerous, but they can hurt. Vinegar will deactivate the sting.

■    Fish hooks from a stray surf fishing line can get embedded in your skin. Do not try to reverse them out. Since they are barbed, they need to be removed at a medical clinic.

■    Heat exhaustion – dizziness, headache, muscle cramps, profuse sweating, nausea and/or rapid heartbeat – is a serious condition that should not be ignored. Anyone who has been exercising in the heat or who is vulnerable in hot weather – those who are very young or very old, or have compromised health – should not stay outside on days with high heat and humidity. Ideally, the person who is exhibiting heat stress should be moved to an air-conditioned room, or at least a shaded area. Plenty of cool water should be provided to drink, and fans, ice or cool water to sponge off with should be offered. If symptoms do not improve, quickly have the person examined by a health professional to make sure that heat stroke, which can be deadly, is not developing.

Catherine Kozak

Catherine Kozak has worked as a writer and reporter on the Outer Banks since 1995. She lives in Nags Head and enjoys running in the woods with her dog, Rosie.

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