Local News

Lifeguards hope research, education can help swimmers recognize rip currents

Posted July 31, 2014 6:50 p.m. EDT

— Despite repeated warnings, swimmers still get caught in the grip of rip currents along the North Carolina coast. Researchers and rescuers are working together to try and change that.

"I don't even know what to look for," said Anita Rand, who was visiting the Outer Banks with her children and grandchildren.

Keeping swimmers safe from the dangers of rip currents has traditionally fallen on the shoulders of the local lifeguard.

"You have people who treat the ocean like a swimming pool – throw their kids out there and not pay attention," lifeguard Nathan Lowdermilk said.

"We in the stands, we see it going wrong long before the people feel the water starting to pull at them," said David Elder, chief of Kill Devil Hills Ocean Rescue.

North Carolina Sea Grant, a nonprofit that provides research, education and outreach on issues affecting the coast and its communities, has launched a study to better understand how rip currents work.

"It's a real challenge to forecast the high-risk days," said Spencer Rogers, a coastal construction and erosion specialist with Sea Grant.

Researchers recently launched buoys into the rip currents along Carolina Beach, and they plan to do the same thing along the Outer Banks in August. Even as they study more locations, they said, the ultimate answer to saving lives remains with the swimmer.

"There's no one perfect answer you can give everyone. Everyone is different, rips are different. So, it comes back to prevention," said Rob Brander, an associate professor at the University of New South Wales in Australia who is studying North Carolina rip currents.

Elder is working with other researchers to create a computer model to help better predict when and where rip currents will occur.

"Education is really the answer to every problem we have as humans," he said.

Beachgoer Amy Zielinski said she would like to know enough to recognize a rip current.

"I think more people need to be aware of it, especially the kids," Zielinski said.