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Rip currents still danger to all swimmers

(May 29, 2015) With last year being one of the worst in Ocean City for rip currents, the Ocean City Beach Patrol is again reminding people to be aware of their dangers, since they can sweep away even the strongest swimmers.

Last year was one of the deadliest on record in Ocean City: five swimmers died following struggles in rip currents and a sixth died of a broken neck.

Before last year, Ocean City had not reported a death while lifeguards were on duty since 2007.

Rip currents are not just the undertow created by surf rushing in and surf rushing out. While that is part of it, other elements are involved.

The wave action itself does move an incredible amount of water. As waves undulate in and out, some water is moving in as the previous batch of waves is moving out. But when a great number of waves or oceanic motion occurs, the water receding can draw back quickly, dragging anything in it farther out to sea. Also a contributing factor is the shape of the ocean floor right at the surf break. A dip, or trough, can cause the outflow of water to be faster and stronger, like a rapidly rushing river surrounded by water.

Rip currents are a part of the beach dynamic everywhere. Three counties in Florida reported three deaths and more than 500 rescues during Memorial Day weekend, according to media reports.

“As you’re swimming if you notice yourself getting farther from the beach than you’d like to be,” Ocean City Beach Patrol Capt. Butch Arbin said, “and as you attempt to swim and you find you’re making little progress, you’re probably caught in a rip current.”

These currents do not drag swimmers down beneath the waves, but instead drain stamina.

“You’re on a treadmill, and you get so tired you’re not physically able to swim or call for help, and you go under,” Arbin said.

But there is an easy way out of even the strongest rip current: turn and swim parallel to the shore for a while.

“Turn and swim sideways — they’re not very wide,” Arbin said, “it’s a small channel of water moving in one direction.”

Once free from the current, most swimmers are able to return to the beach under their own power, Arbin said.

“Last year was beyond the word tragic for Ocean City,” city government spokeswoman Jessica Waters said, “We take special pride in keeping people safe.”

Waters said the city is using social media to reinforce the message to visitors to keep their feet in the sand until Beach Patrol members are on duty. The city also is providing updated beach conditions through its website.

Both Arbin and Waters said it was a good idea for swimmers to check in with lifeguards to let them know your abilities and concerns, and also to get perspective of the day’s conditions.

“The guard can tell you the status and give advice based on what they see,” Arbin said. “They might say to you, based on what you’ve told me, it’s probably not the best idea for you to go swimming today.”

“During the summer we have so much (visitor) turnover, so we’re educating a new population every week,” Waters said.

“The biggest thing is to only swim when Beach Patrol is on duty,” Arbin said, “and to not drink alcohol to excess before you go swimming.”

More than one incident in Ocean City could have been avoided by following those rules, he added.

“The strongest Olympic swimmer can drown in a rip current,” Arbin warned.

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