(Sept. 6, 2019) Strong rip currents and surf conditions resulted in a busy Labor Day weekend for the Ocean City Beach Patrol, which made 264 rescues over the course of the four-day holiday.
Of those rescues, 25 took place on Friday and Saturday, 61 on Monday, and the most rescues happened on Sunday with 153 rescues, said the beach patrol’s public information coordinator, Kristin Joson.
Most rescues were considered assists, said Ocean City Beach Patrol Capt. Butch Arbin, who cited tropical activity as a reason for the stronger waves.
“The rescues made were more of an assist in the sense that we didn’t want people to be afraid,” Arbin said. “If a person didn’t respond, we were spread out, so we don’t have the ability to do the more preventive type [of guarding]. Several times this weekend we pulled people out of the ocean a couple spots and then we would talk to them about conditions and let them back in.”
Many lifeguards returned to the resort to work Labor Day weekend, allowing for 32 stands to observe 10 miles of beach, Arbin said.
“Forty of our people drove over 110 miles, or at least the other side of the Chesapeake Bay bridge, or Pennsylvania or New Jersey,” Arbin said. “One girl drove all the way from Miami, Florida, to work the weekend and another guy drove all the way from Indiana, so people really stepped up to help bring the numbers up.”
The increased number of guards also meant it was possible to perform their three primary objectives; education, prevention and intervention.
“I think we had a great Labor Day weekend,” Joson said. “We were able to continue all parts of our mission. We performed what our lifeguards call EDUs which stands for education. The guards will semaphore EDU to the guards to the north and south and let them know they are getting down off the stand to education a group or individual. They also pulled groups to the stand to give their safety talks as we have been doing all season long.”
Preventive measures include only swimming when lifeguards are on their stands, which is daily from 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Arbin also emphasized the importance of swimming in front of a guard.
“We ask the swimmers to swim in front of the nearest guards and that’s even more important now because we’ve really reduced the number of stands on the beach,” he said. “We want people to check in with the guards about conditions before they go in and we don’t want them to rely on artificial flotation as opposed to swimming ability.
“Sometimes parents give a boogie board to a child who can’t swim,” he continued. “They can be separated from their flotation [device] and then that becomes a serious situation. If you can swim and you want to use a boogie board that’s fine, but to use a boogie board when you can’t swim is a really bad situation.”
Lifeguards will remain on duty every day until the end of Sunfest, which takes place Sept. 17-22.
“We have a great group of people that are committed to the safety of the beach and that’s why they made the trip back and we’ll be able to add additional stands,” Arbin said. “In addition to all the stands, we have 12 mobile rescue units ... all 12 rescue units were out all [last] weekend and they are out now with the few stands we have. We will add stands and the mobile rescue units this weekend.”
Staying with sight of lifeguards will be especially important this weekend, because of the expected effects of Hurricane Dorian. Although the current tracking data places the hurricane far out to sea by late Friday, with the possibility of winds reaching tropical storm stage only about 38 percent, according to the National Hurricane Center’s Wednesday forecast, the storm will still affect tides and surf on the beach.
A tropical storm warning is in effect from the North Carolina-Virginia border to Fenwick Island, Delaware, which includes Ocean City, according to a National Hurricane Center advisory. A tropical storm watch is also in effect for inland Worcester County.
The National Weather Service office in Wakefield, Virginia issued a “high rip current risk” for Maryland beaches that would remain in effect until 8 p.m. Thursday evening.
Rip currents, which used to be called, erroneously, rip tides, are powerful channels of water flowing quickly away from shore. They occur most often at low spots or breaks in the sandbar and in the vicinity of structures such as jetties and piers.
Arbin said that higher wave activity and increased water are contributing factors to rip currents.
“Our rip currents are increased by more water coming into the beach because of increased wave action just caused by this time of the year, and then that increased water coming into the beach has to make its way back out, so that causes the additional currents and rip currents and the strength of the rip current,” he said. “More water coming in, more water has to go out. The more water has to flow out, then it’s more powerful.”
Arbin said a storm system or hurricane can be hundreds of miles offshore and still pose a danger to swimmers and waders just off the beach. He used a pebble as an analogy to illustrate this point,
“When you drop a [pebble] in the pond, the ripples continue on out until you just can’t tell them anymore. It’s the same thing,” Arbin said. “When we get tropical activity in the Atlantic, the closer it gets, it’s still going to push water in front of it because of the wind bands.”
Waves are caused by wind and as waves approach shallow water or land, they increase in height because the wall of water has nowhere else to go, and as all that water recedes into the ocean, a rip current can be the result. The strongest of these currents occur in July, August and September.
“This time of year, every year, we have increased surf, and that has to with tropical depressions and tropical activity in the Atlantic basin,” Arbin said. “That’s normal for us.”
In terms of strength, even the best of swimmers is no match for a head-to-head contest with one of these backward-flowing columns of water.
“Michael Phelps could not swim straight against a strong rip current,” he said. “You just can’t do it, because for every two strokes he comes closer to shore, the rip current pushes him back a stroke.”
If someone does find themselves in a rip current, the Ocean City Beach Patrol has a trusty acronym:
• “R” is for “Relax.” Arbin stressed that people shouldn’t panic.
• “I” is for “I need help.” Arbin said the person should waive his or her arms to signal their need of assistance to lifeguards.
• “P” is for “Parallel,” which means people should swim parallel to the rip current until help arrives or until they find themselves outside its grip. Arbin said it’s critical that a swimmer caught in a rip current not attempt to swim against it and back to shore.
Arbin said people should leave it to the professionals and not attempt to go into the ocean to rescue others.
“The guards are trained,” Arbin said. “The guards don’t swim a person straight back in against the rip current.”
As for Hurricane Dorian, Arbin said the system is not presently contributing to the rip currents in area, although it is likely to have some impact on surf conditions as it passes out to sea.