Reading The Rips: From Signs To Forecast Models, Experts Spread The Word

The bright red letters, darting arrows and catchy slogan dot countless beach access points along the Outer Banks. Yet for all the warnings about rip currents and how to “Break the Grip of the Rip!” swimmers still struggle to identify and avoid dangerous rip currents.

“It’s something we deal with every summer,” Nags Head Ocean Rescue Captain Chad Motz said. “Rip currents contribute to roughly 80 percent of water rescues, so it’s definitely high on our priority list of safety concerns. We live on a big sandbar, so the rip currents we deal with are constantly shifting. It’s continual analysis for us.”

Ripcurrents on the Outer Banks

Scientists are currently working on a detailed forecast model to warn swimmers about rip currents, which are fast-moving currents that can pull people away from shore and through the surf zone. Roughly 100 deaths a year are attributed to rip currents in the United States, according to data provided by the National Weather Service (NWS) and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). Eleven of those deaths occurred in North Carolina in 2016, seven of which were on the Outer Banks from Rodanthe to Ocracoke.

NOAA Senior Scientist Dr. Greg Dusek serves as the subject matter expert when it comes to rip currents. He is part of a team that uses data collected from NWS Weather Forecast Offices to create a model that can give swimmers and lifeguards remarkable insight when it comes to predicting rip currents.

“Instead of once a day, we’ll have an opportunity to predict every hour, up to four days in the future, for every kilometer on the beach,” Dusek said. “The Outer Banks is one of the first places we’re testing it. People get something like that on their smartphone – having that hour-by-hour look is going to be really important: ‘Hey, this location I’m going, what kind of conditions am I looking at now? (What about) later in the day…? I think that time-specific information is going to be really helpful. When and where do I need to be most concerned?”

Dusek said NOAA hopes to roll out the forecasts across the U.S. next summer. In the meantime, NOAA, the NWS and lifeguards will continue their work in educating visitors and locals about how to spot rip currents and what to do when caught in one.

Ripcurrent diagram

The “Break the Grip of the Rip” program has been in place for more than a decade, Dusek said, and has proven successful in raising awareness. NOAA’s Ocean Today group produced four videos about rip currents that will be circulated on social media again this summer. One of those videos was filmed in 2015 in conjunction with Kill Devil Hills Ocean Rescue, which has also teamed with NOAA’s Dusek over the last few years to provide lifeguard date to scientists as they develop the model.

Those videos can be found online at oceantoday.noaa.gov/danger-zone.html and include drone footage of rip currents with green dye to illustrate what rips look like.

No matter the awareness level, people still get in trouble and unfortunately, sometimes drown.

“You hear the same kinds of stories over and over again, so it’s pretty disheartening in that regard,” Dusek said. “But it also gives you motivation to know that what we’re doing is going to reduce those numbers.”

Motz, who has worked with Nags Head Fire & Rescue for 17 years and served as ocean rescue captain since 2005, said his team of lifeguards performs 250 to 300 rescues a year, with 70 to 80 percent of those from rip currents.

Ocean Rescue personnel up and down the beach remind people about swimming near lifeguard stands, but that advice can fall on deaf ears.

“We try to keep the people as safe as we can throughout the summer season, and sometimes that means closing the beaches,” Motz said. “People know if they go down south, they don’t have red flags. When we see some of those (drowning) incidents happen where the park service has limited lifeguard coverage, that definitely sparks some conversations about people’s choices and swim safety.”

For everyone enjoying a day at the beach, it’s important to be observant and look for rip currents before entering the ocean. Motz explained that rip currents occur most often on the Outer Banks two hours before and after low tide. That’s when sandbars are most exposed. People swim out to the bars and then get caught in a lateral current.

“There’s a lot of safety information out there,” Motz said. “Talking to people we save from the ocean, a lot of them have seen the info and know what to try to do, but putting it into practice is kind of a different story.”

Dusek encourages swimmers to stand on the dune line before walking down to the water’s edge. People should look for places where the waves aren’t breaking, because those are the spots where there’s deeper water and rip currents are more likely to form. It’s also helpful to look for water discoloration due to sand, sediment and foam being transported offshore in a rip current.

That’s what lifeguards Devyn Dodson and Kira Foster do when they first arrive at a beach, whether for work or fun. Dodson, who just wrapped up his senior year at First Flight High School (FFHS), guards beaches in Duck, Southern Shores and Cape Hatteras National Seashore. He scans the water for areas with murkier, green colors to spot rip currents. Foster, a rising senior at FFHS who works for Kill Devil Hills Ocean Rescue, added that “it’s definitely something you look for when you first walk on the beach.”

Ripcurrent study

A recent NOAA initiative included inserting green dye in a rip current to illustrate its seaward movement. Photo provided by NOAA.

Some days, people ask a dozen times about rip current dangers. Other days, the guards won’t get a single question.

“If it’s a rough day, I get lots of questions,” Foster said. “It’s usually from moms – they don’t want their children to drown.”

Worrying about rip currents only on rough days is a common misconception, though. Dusek said strong rip currents can be present with waves in the 2- to 3-foot range, and Dodson added that some of the most dangerous times on the Outer Banks can be deceiving.

“It’s worst when the water has calmed down the day after it’s been rough,” Dodson explained. “We’ll have 50, 60 rescues and I’ll tell people, ‘There are mad rip currents out there.’”

To warn people of the dangers, Foster draws diagrams in the sand to illustrate the notion of swimming parallel to the shore to get out of the current before making your way back to safety. Lifeguards in Kill Devil Hills also place yellow flags on the beach to stake out where rip currents are present.

But it’s still something people worry about, and try to fight.

“The misconception is they pull you down – that there’s a monster down there pulling you down,” Foster said. “They just pull you out.”

And if the rip current does pull you out, the best advice is to keep calm.

“When people get caught in rip currents, they fight it. They’ve heard so many times what to do when they get caught, but they start swimming hard against the current, start panicking, and become exhausted,” said Dodson, who has made two rip current rescues while guarding local beaches. “Let a guard come save you or just chill.”

Steve Hanf

Steve Hanf worked as a sportswriter for 13 years in North Carolina before finding a fun second career in the classroom. He currently advises the newspaper and yearbook programs at First Flight High School and loves his new life on the OBX.

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