Check water depth, enter feet first to avoid serious injury
By Kristin Joson
(Aug. 23, 2013) Striking the ocean bottom with your head or neck may cause serious injuries, paralysis, or death.
“Feet first, first time,” to check the water depth.
Before you can understand shorebreak, you need to understand a little bit about wave action and the contour of the ocean’s bottom (bathometry) close to shore. Bathometry, a term we learned while working with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, refers to the contour of the ocean’s bottom. Shorebreak has to do with the contour/slope of the ocean floor close to shore as waves break. A wave is a body of water moving along the surface of the ocean. It loses speed and gains height when it approaches the shore.
As this happens, the depth of the water below the wave becomes increasingly shallower. The size of the wave is affected by how strong the wind is, the direction from which it is blowing and tropical activity in the Atlantic. As tropical events form and approach the East Coast they cause large and sometimes rough surf, especially in late July and August (although this summer has been unusually calm). As a wave passes over the ocean bottom and the depth decreases, the energy of the wave is forced up until the wave can no longer maintain its form and it breaks (top of wave plunges forward).
Depending on the tide, and depth of the water, the waves may break on the sandbar causing the force of the wave to plunge into the deeper trough. This is the type of wave that is appropriate for body surfing or body boarding because the wave is crashing or breaking onto water that has sufficient depth. However, during high tide the depth of the water over the sandbar will allow the wave to continue toward the beach building in size until it eventually runs out of water depth as it arrives on the beach. When this happens, the wave will break on the shoreline with all of its crushing force. This is what we call shorebreak and consequently, swimmers in shorebreak, land directly on the sand. Landing on wet sand is no more forgiving than landing on concrete. These waves are unpredictable and dangerous because they can cause serious shoulder, neck, and spinal injuries to even the most experienced swimmer. The beach patrol recommends that you never attempt to ride waves that are breaking on the shore or play in the impact zone (the area where the force of the wave is being delivered).
Although the beach patrol treats even the most minor injury to the head (abrasion on forehead, bloody nose, etc.) as though it was a life and death spinal cord injury, most turn out to be minor muscular injuries rather than more serious fractures. Of the suspected head/neck and spinal injuries we respond to, 60 percent are caused by swimmers who ride a wave into shore incorrectly, and the other 40 percent are caused by swimmers diving into shallow water or doing tricks such as flips and striking their head or neck on the ocean floor.
Be reassured that when the need arises, the Ocean City Beach Patrol is ready to respond. We have worked with trauma doctors to develop a specialized technique to manage suspected head, neck and back injuries. Although every surf rescue technician is trained and skilled in the use of these techniques, it is far better for our beach patrons to have injuries prevented rather than treated. When body surfing, we recommend doing so with your head up and your arms out in front of the body to protect yourself. If using a boogie board, make sure you keep it out in front of you to prevent your head from hitting the shore (ride on the back half).
Taking responsibility for your own actions and spreading caution about spinal cord injuries is the greatest form of prevention we have. Many people just do not realize that wet sand is just as un-yielding as concrete and that it is the bones of the spinal column that cause the damage and possible paralysis that results from the impact of your head, neck or back with the beach. Most people would never think of attempting a flip in the middle of a parking lot for fear of striking the ground. However, many of these same individuals will attempt these aerial maneuvers on the beach or into a few inches of ocean water. Please, use your head to protect your spine and think before diving or riding breaking waves onto the beach. Have fun, but remain safe.
The beach patrol reminds you to always check water depth before diving. Our saying is, “ Feet first, first time,” which is to remind you to walk out into the surf rather than running and diving.
To learn more about shorebreak visit www.ococean.com/ocbp click on the safety button and then the shorebreak video. You can also get current information about the beach patrol as well as daily stats and current beach conditions by following the beach patrol on Twitter or “like us” on our official OCBP Facebook page.
Captain’s Note: Just this past week we had a very serious neck injury to a 19-year-old woman who attempted to dive over a breaking wave on the beach and hit the bottom head first in only a few inches of water. The resulting injury may be life changing. Please pass our warning on so these very preventable accidents don’t happen to someone else.