Keeping An Eye Out For Rip Currents

Chances are, if you are planning a vacation to the Outer Banks, you will find yourself soaking up rays, squishing sand between your toes and playing in the Atlantic Ocean.

Following are a few tips and terms one should learn to ensure your visit to the Outer Banks is a safe one.

Rip currents are the most common threat to swimmers. The United States Lifesaving Association accounts over 80% of ocean rescues to swimmers caught in rip currents. They also estimate rip currents cause about 100 deaths per year, so please remember that they have the potential to be deadly. A trained eye can spot a rip current on the shore. The best way I could describe it is a V shaped pull in the shorebreak waves as they recede. There might also be a small difference in the look and color of the water. If in doubt, always ask a lifeguard. Most lifeguard stands have a chalkboard highlighting the days high and low tides, air temperature, water temperature and any warnings. These might include high winds, rip currents, jellyfish or anything else the guards on duty feel concerned about. Swimming near a lifeguard is your safest bet, as the U.S. Lifesaving Association calculates the chance of a person drowning on a lifeguard-protected beach is 1 in about 18 million.

If you do find yourself caught in a rip current, do not panic. I, personally, have been caught in one and survived to tell you about it. Remain calm and swim parallel to the shore. Do not fight the current by trying to swim straight back to shore, even though this is the instinctual thing to do. The currents pull is straight out, so swimming against it will only exhaust you. Swimming parallel to the shore to escape is still tiring, but manageable. If you cannot break free, or feel yourself getting too tired, notify someone on shore. You can do this by waving your arms above your head and/or shouting “Help!” Only use these safety procedures in serious situations. It is unsafe to alert a lifeguards attention when not necessary or for a joke.

The U.S. Coast Guard practices a Coastal Warning Display, through flags or lights to warn beach goers and small crafts. The flags are flown on a tall flag post, usually at a beach entrance. The lights are used at night, mainly at boat stations. The most commonly used display is a single red flag, which signifies a storm or high wind warning. The flag is either solid red in color, or has a black rectangle in the center. When red flags are flying, do not enter the water. The U.S. Coast Guard and local lifeguards have decided it is a danger and you are swimming at your own risk.

Sometimes, violation tickets are issued for those disobeying the flags. During a hurricane, two red and black combination flags are flown together on the flag post, one on top of another. Again, do not enter the water, it is unsafe. The Outer Banks beaches are patrolled by lifeguards Memorial Day weekend through Labor Day weekend.

Their website, lists the entrances lifeguard stands can be found at and the hours lifeguards are on active duty. In addition to the stands, most beaches have roaming patrol watches using lifeguard SUV vehicles and small ATVs. These vehicles travel up and down some beaches. If you notice them approaching please do not cross in front of their path and pay attention to children’s whereabouts.

By remembering to stay close to a lifeguard, pay attention to their signs and heed any warnings, you can enjoy a safe beach vacation like millions of other yearly beachgoers. Don’t forget the sunscreen, either!