Seven people died in rip currents off the coast of North Carolina last year, the fourth-highest number of rip current-related drownings in the country and the most since officials began keeping state records more than a decade ago.
The ranking is one element of a new report aimed at improving efforts to educate people about rip currents.
Rip currents are deadly, strong channels of water flowing seaward from near the shore, typically through the surf line. They occur frequently off the coast during the summer.
Last year, four swimmers drowned in rip currents during the July Fourth holiday weekend at Sunset Beach, Holden Beach and Ocean Isle Beach in the Wilmington area. None of areas had lifeguards.
Nationwide, 80 people drowned in rip currents in 2013, according to a fatalities report released last week by the National Weather Service.
The report — the first of its kind — contains data from Puerto Rico and 13 states, ranging from Pennsylvania to Texas to Oregon. By compiling specifics about the circumstances of each drowning, meteorologists hope to fine-tune warning efforts across the country.
“We’re trying to evolve a database to get a better feel for not only the number of people being impacted, but where are they from? Are they inland? Are they coastal? Is it more of a gender issue? Which age demographic?” said Steve Pfaff, warning coordinator meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Wilmington. “We’re just trying to get a clue to see who’s at risk.”
According to last year’s data, for example, swimmers between the ages of 10 and 19 were most at risk, followed by beachgoers between the ages of 20 and 29. Men and boys were 10 times more likely than women or girls to succumb to rip currents, and the majority of drownings occurred on Saturday, Sunday and Monday.
There’s no official theory about those statistics, though at first glance they’re somewhat unsurprising.
“There’s no hard evidence, but what I’ve read suggests that testosterone gives males that daring, bold mentality, especially when you’re young,” said Wayne Presnell, a meteorologist at the marine and coastal services branch of the National Weather Service headquarters in Silver Spring, Md. “It’s been known for a while now that younger males have a greater chance of falling into that trap.”
A number of those deaths happened when a beachgoer jumped into the surf to try to save a struggling swimmer, then succumbed to the rip current himself, Presnell added.
“A lot fatalities occur when someone — say, a child — is in trouble,” he said. “The dad goes out and tries to rescue them, and the dad ends up perishing in the rip current. Instead of calling for help, they’re going to jump right in and try to save them.”
Addressing that issue is one way to use the wealth of data. Efforts to increase education about rip currents in schools and coastal towns have ramped up in recent years; and that will most likely continue, Pfaff said, but the specifics may change in the future. For example, future educational materials could be geared toward those beachgoers who attempt rescue efforts themselves.
“First and foremost, they should call 911 and notify lifeguards,” Pfaff said. “Then, you should be able to direct the person in the water. It may be hand signals, to get them to swim parallel. You might be able to throw a life-saving device, like a bodyboard, to them if they’re not too far away. That’s just one way we can utilize the data.”
Officials would also like to increase education among tourists who don’t live on the coast and may not know basic information about rip currents, but that process will take time, Pfaff said.
“For people with no experience who are coming from interior areas — it’s just a work in progress,” he said. “It’s not something where we’re going to flip the switch and everyone is informed. It’s just a continual process. The more people we get engaged with it, the better it is for the communities.”
Rip-current drownings in North Carolina in 2013: Seven
National rank: Fourth
Gender breakdown: Six males, one female
Where: Pine Knoll Shores (one), Topsail Beach (one), Oak Island (one), Sunset Beach (two), Holden Beach (one), Ocean Isle Beach (one)
When: Five in July, two in June
Nationwide: 79 rip-current drownings
Gender breakdown: 72 male, seven female
Top 5 states: Florida (25), Puerto Rico (18), South Carolina (nine), North Carolina (seven), Texas (four)
Source: National Weather Service
Kate Elizabeth Queram is a reporter for the Wilmington Star News.