Rip currents from recent weather endanger N.J. bathers

Posted: September 08, 2012

 

ATLANTIC CITY - Two women and a teenage boy ignored the stern whistle warnings of lifeguards to stay close to shore, to venture only waist-deep into the surf off North Carolina Avenue.

Rip currents - which can move as fast as eight feet per second, faster than an Olympic swimmer can sprint - pulled the three farther and farther from shore, into deeper water, where relentless monster waves nearly drowned them.

By the time four lifeguards were able to pull them to safety, the swimmers were battered and exhausted, said Beach Patrol Chief Rod Aluise.

Surf churned up by a spike in tropical storms and hurricanes in the Atlantic created numerous rip currents at the Shore this week, relegating swimmers to only ankle-, knee- or waist-deep bathing along New Jersey's coast.

"They didn't seem to want to listen to what the lifeguards were telling them. By the time it was over, they were spent, especially the women . . . almost gone. The force of the rip current had pulled them a block and a half from where they started," Aluise said Thursday of the Tuesday-afternoon incident.

Such rescues, while dramatic, are not rare. Of the thousands of rescues performed every summer by beach patrols up and down the Jersey Shore, more than 80 percent are of swimmers caught in rip currents, according to experts.

From Memorial Day to Labor Day, Atlantic City's beach patrol performed 1,147 rescues, the vast majority related to rip currents. Last year, there were 851.

Aluise said the increase was due to significant increases in crowds during a relatively hot, sunny summer coupled with a change in the contours of the shoreline after a recent beach-fill project.

Also a factor: the tropical storms in the Atlantic, which make for bigger waves.

"The larger the surf, the stronger the rip currents," said Don Myers, chief of the Long Beach Township Beach Patrol. Myers expects this week's five- to six-foot surf to increase to as much as 10 feet next week.

The storms will likely keep the sea churned up and rip currents a dangerous factor for swimmers for at least another week, said Thomas Herrington of Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, an expert on rip currents in New Jersey.

"Rip currents can occur on any beach at any time, so swimmers need to stay vigilant about their own safety," he said.

So as nice weather and warm water continue to beckon beachgoers after Labor Day even as the Atlantic is roiled elsewhere, the conditions put the reduced ranks of lifeguards on even higher alert.

"Under these conditions, we have to be even more vigilant," said Aluise, whose summertime labor force of 125 lifeguards on the nation's oldest beach patrol has been reduced to less than a third of that number as patrol members have returned to school or full-time jobs.

Thomas Mullineaux, chief of the Ocean City Beach Patrol, said structures in the water, such as jetties and piers, create "fixed rip currents" in certain spots.

Also, areas where the beach has lost a lot of sand over the winter have underwater gouges that make the waves flow in "dangerous streams" along the beachfront, he said.

"We know where these areas are, so we keep swimmers away from them," Mullineaux said.

But it's the rip currents that materialize as the tides change and rougher seas move in that keep lifeguards on their toes. Even to a trained eye, they can sometimes be hard to spot, he said.

Rip currents flow away from the shore and result from complex interactions among waves, currents, water levels, and the shape of the shoreline and nearshore bottom, according to the National Weather Service.

To stay safe, swimmers should avoid areas of the water that look choppy or churned up and waves that seem to be running opposite of the direction of other waves, Mullineaux said.

"If they see waves that are running at an odd angle, running into each other, as opposed to rolling in smoothly, that can be the sign of a rip," Mullineaux said. "If they get caught in a rip current, the most important thing is not to panic, to just stay afloat and ride it out."

Ocean City goes from 39 guarded beaches down to 11 this time of the year. Lifeguards this summer in Ocean City performed rescues for 535 people during the season, up from 421 last year. The beach patrol estimates that Ocean City's beaches had three million visitors this summer, he said.

An increase in rescues - and early-season incidents in which five people drowned at Jersey beaches by mid-July during hours when lifeguards were off-duty - could be attributable to how early the sea warmed this summer.

"It's usually in the low 60s in June, but this year the ocean was 70 degrees by Memorial Day," Herrington said.

Through Stevens and the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration's New Jersey Sea Grant Cooperative Extension in Coastal Processes, Herrington's research team introduced a smartphone app this summer to track rip currents in real time in Long Branch and Spring Lake.

Beach patrol members recorded rip current sightings, and the data collected were forwarded to National Weather Service forecasters in Mount Holly to help them post weather warnings. The information is also being used in further study of the currents, Herrington said.

Herrington said the pilot program met with moderate success and may be expanded to recruit the help of beach patrol members and supervisors in other beach towns next year.


Contact Jacqueline L. Urgo at 609-652-8382 or jurgo@phillynews.com. Read the Jersey Shore blog "Downashore" at www.philly.com/downashore.

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