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Rip currents can pose an unexpected safety threat

(June 27, 2014) For seven years – since 2007 – not a single swimmer died while swimming in the Atlantic Ocean beach while lifeguards were on duty.

On June 13 that beach claimed its second life in a single month, both due to rip currents.

More than 30 rescue swimmers from a half dozen rescue companies attempted a save in the most recent case, but the highly trained experts from the Ocean City Beach Patrol, fire and police department were unable to recover the 17-year-old swimmer.

Another swimmer, an 18-year-old, died on June 3 after being caught in a rip current.

“The swimmer was recovered during the search and rescue just like the one a week earlier,” Butch Arbin, captain of the Ocean City Beach Patrol, said of the most recent case. “The swimmer was unable to be rescued because in both cases, as the Special Reaction Team was affecting the rescue, a breaking wave caused the swimmer to become submerged.

“The responding SRTs then begin a process to dive below the surface in an attempt to locate the now-submerged victim. Ocean currents and a severe lack of visibility make locating a submerged victim very difficult if not impossible, which usually is the case. As other SRTs arrive on the scene a coordinated pattered search is established, and other agencies are added to the search efforts as they arrive.”

Arbin noted that the OCBP and Fire/EMS companies train together.

“We also get assistance from Beach Patrol rescue craft, U.S. Coast Guard, Maryland Natural Resources Police and Maryland State Police aviation, which has specialized equipment to locate a person on the water. In both cases the missing person was located within our 45-minute window.”

Rip currents have been unusually active in Ocean City this summer. The currents occur when a strong narrow channel of water flows from the surf out to sea. When breaking waves push onshore, gravity pulls the water back out to sea, causing a convergence moving away from the shore.

According to the National Weather Service, 2,799 rip current-related rescues were performed in Ocean City in 2012. By contrast, just 578 similar rescues were performed in Virginia Beach.

That doesn’t necessary mean Ocean City’s beaches are more dangerous.

“The statistics reported do not take into account the size of the reporting area or the length of the reporting season,” Arbin said. “Ocean City has one of the longest seasons, and with 10 miles of guarded beaches it is also one of the largest. If you were to compare the number of rescues per mile rather than the total reported rescues we are very similar to most other Mid-Atlantic beaches.”

Still, officials say any swimmer who enters the ocean should first check with a lifeguard on duty about ocean conditions, rip currents, and any signs of bad weather.

If you are caught in a rip current, a few simple steps could save your life.

Don’t fight the current. Instead, swim parallel to the shore until you are out of the current. Struggling against a rip current will only exhaust the swimmer and make them more vulnerable.

If you are caught in a rip current, put your hands in the air and attempt to signal a lifeguard. If someone close to you is caught in a rip current, do not attempt to rescue them. Signal the nearest lifeguard on duty and move yourself out of harm’s way. Remain calm, and if you cannot swim out of a rip current, simply tread water. Once you are safely out of the current, swim to shore and alert the nearest lifeguard about the potentially dangerous conditions.

If you see another swimmer caught in a rip current, call 911 immediately – do not attempt to rescue them yourself.

July is traditionally the most active month for rip currents. Vigilance, a little education and a healthy dose of caution could go a long way in preventing future incidents in Ocean City.

For more information visit www.oceancitymd.gov/Recreation_and_Parks/Beach_Patrol.

Josh Davis, Ocean City Today
Josh Davis, Ocean City Today
Josh Davis grew up in Salisbury and spent summers wandering around the Ocean City beach and boardwalk. He has written three novels, including ‘The Muse and the Mechanism’ and ‘Vanishing is the Last Art,’ both published by Pretend Genius Press. His short stories, poems, essays and criticism have been featured in the collections ‘Fish Drink Like Us’ and ‘Last Night’s Dream Collected,’ and published in magazines like The Angler and The Rumpus. He is a frequent contributor to Time Out New York and a proud staff writer for Ocean City Today and the Bayside Gazette, where he reports primarily on Berlin and Ocean Pines.

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