It’s been a treacherous summer for rip currents on North Carolina’s beaches, though coastal authorities said the waters have been calmer this month than they were in June.
Five beachgoers have been killed in rip currents this summer, including four over a nine-day period in June.
Those rip currents were partly attributable to a rare meteorological event, according to the National Weather Service.
A long swell period – swell period is the distance between developing waves – causes bigger, rougher surf and a greater chance of rip currents, said Shane Kearns, a weather service meteorologist in Morehead City.
Long swell periods, often valued by surfers, rarely occur on North Carolina’s central and southern coast, where all five of the deaths occurred, said Kearns.
On June 10, 17-year-old Elijah Hinnant of Wayne County died after being caught in a rip current near Emerald Isle. Tyreese Worsley, 16, was caught in the same rip current. He was rescued in critical condition, but died nine days later in a Greenville hospital.
On June 17, a 56-year-old man died trying to rescue two teens from a rip current in Atlantic Beach. The next day, Justin Eakes, 21, of Greenville, died after being caught in a rip current near Atlantic Beach that morning.
These four deaths were likely all related to a long swell period, creating bigger and more dangerous waves, and wind patterns favorable for rip currents, Kearns said. These wave patterns are unpredictable more than a week in advance, he said.
The fifth death occurred on July 10, when Richard Mullins, 24, of Kentucky, went missing at Holden Beach. After eight hours of searching, his body was found on the beach by a pedestrian.
Coastal emergency response teams receive “too many (calls) to count” responding to rip currents, Kearns said. But local officials say the number of calls has regressed to the average after the spike in rip current activity in mid-June.
Historically, North Carolina is one of the most dangerous states for rip currents. Between 1996 and 2016, 54 beachgoers were killed in rip currents in the state – the second-most in the nation, trailing only Florida, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
This year’s number of deaths because of rip currents in North Carolina is on pace to match last year’s total of eight. Nationally, 31 people have died in rip current-related accidents this year.
Overall, about 80 percent of ocean rescues are because of rip currents, according to the U.S. Lifesaving Association. Rip currents often are caused when water gets trapped behind a sandbar and rushes back into the ocean through a narrow channel. They are present almost every day, though not always at high speeds. They are typically narrow – only about 10 to 20 feet wide – and can move up to 8 feet per second.
Rip currents can appear to be calm areas of the ocean without waves. A break in the pattern of incoming waves can signal a rip current.
Kearns said many deaths occur when people swim into rip currents to try to rescue others.
“I know it’s tough, but we want to urge people to contact emergency services or lifeguards, because they’re the ones who are actually trained to rescue people,” he said.
Staff writers Abbie Bennett and Josh Shaffer contributed reporting.
Sam Killenberg - 919-829-4802
Stay safe at the beach
Swim at a lifeguard-protected beach. Swim with caution, obey lifeguard instructions, and never swim alone.
If caught in a rip current: Remain calm. Do not fight the current – instead, try to exit the current swimming parallel to the shore. Think of it as a treadmill that cannot be turned off, which you need to step to the side of. If you can’t exit the current, float or tread water, and try to draw attention to yourself by waving your arms and yelling for help.
If you see someone in trouble: Get help from a lifeguard, and if a lifeguard is not available, call 911. Try to throw the rip current victim something that floats – a life jacket, a cooler or an inflatable ball. Remember, many people drown while trying to save someone else from a rip current.
Find out more about rip currents at www.ripcurrents.noaa.gov.