What the Lifeguards Want You to Know

By Molly Harrison | Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Though the ocean is still rather chilly - ranging between 62 and 66 degrees at present - people are out there swimming already. Not me. I'm not ready until the ocean is at least 70 degrees, but hopefully that won't be long. June is only a week away, believe it or not. * With Memorial Day weekend fast approaching and throngs of visitors on their way, local Ocean Rescue teams are in their final days of training this week, and the lifeguard stands are going up on the beaches. When the guards go on duty on Saturday at 10 a.m., it'll officially be Swimming Season.

So what do the local lifeguards want beachgoers to know? I talked to a couple of Ocean Rescuers this week and this is what they said. Thanks to T-Mike Morrison of Kill Devil Hills Ocean Rescue and Sylvia Wolff of Corolla Ocean Rescue for taking time off their busy training schedules to give us some tips.

Keep in mind: Some of these tips might be common sense to you, but, remember, not everyone reading this is local and spends time in the ocean on a regular basis. And even if you are a regular ocean swimmer you might pick up a new tip or two.

Rip Currents

Rip currents are responsible for about 80 percent of lifeguard rescues in the ocean. Do you know what a rip current is? Do you know what to do if you get caught in a rip current?

A rip current happens when waves break and water is pushed up the slope of the shore. Gravity pulls this water back toward the sea. If it converges in a narrow, river-like current moving away from shore, it forms what is known as a rip current. Rips can flow to a point just past the breaking surf or hundreds of yards offshore. Rip currents may pull continuously, but they can suddenly appear or intensify after a set of waves, or when there is a breach in an offshore sandbar.

You can sometimes identify a rip current by a foamy and choppy surface. The water in a rip current may be dirty (from the sand being turned up by the current). The water may be colder than the surrounding water. Waves usually do not break as readily in a rip current as in adjacent water. If you get caught in a rip current, the current will pull you away from shore. People often call them "undertows" but that is incorrect. Rips will not pull you under the water but rather farther out to sea.

If you get caught in a rip current:

- Do not panic.

- Do not try to swim against the current as this is very difficult, even for an experienced swimmer, and it will wear you out. If you can, tread water and float.

- Call or wave for assistance.

- Try to swim parallel to shore until you are out of the current, then swim directly toward shore.

- Eventually the current will dissipate and you will be able to swim parallel to shore to get out of the current and then back to shore.

- If you have a flotation device with you, don't abandon it in your efforts to swim in. Stay with it.

What to do if someone else gets caught in a rip current:

- Get help from a lifeguard or call 911 immediately.

- Yell instructions on how to escape.

- If possible, throw a flotation device to the person.

- If you do go out in the water after the person, take a flotation device with you.

Swimming Safety Tips

- Learn to swim.

- Swim near a lifeguard.

- Say hello to the lifeguard as you come to the beach and ask the guard if there are any potential hazards or rip currents that day.

- Always swim with a buddy.

- Obey all flags. Red flags mean absolutely no swimming. Yellow flags mean that conditions are hazardous and you should take extra precautions when swimming.

- Swim sober. Alcohol can greatly impair your judgment and swimming ability.

- Don't depend on a float if you can't swim. What happens if you lose the float?

- Don't dive head first on the first wave. Always check the depth before you dive.

- Use a leash to tether yourself to surfboards, boogie boards and paddleboards.

- If you can hear thunder, you are within reach of lightning. Get out of the water and off the beach.

OK, so who's ready for a swim? All of this is not intended to scare you about the ocean but to make you more respectful of the ocean's power.

And then there are the things totally unrelated to water that lifeguards see people doing on the beach. These are the things that distract lifeguards from their jobs of watching swimmers in the water. Who does these things? Is it you?

- Watch your children at all times. Lifeguards witness parents reading books or even sleeping while their children play in the ocean. Not a good idea, even if they're just wading. A wave can knock children off their feet and sweep them under in a flash. Some parents even drop their kids off at the beach and leave because they figure the lifeguard will watch the kids! Remember, that guard is watching a lot of people, not only your kid.

- Lost children. It happens more than you think. If it happens to you, stay calm. Locate a lifeguard and tell him or her what happened. Stay with the guard as he/she communicates with other guards via radio. A good idea is to discuss beach safety with your children before you go to the beach. Tell your children to find a lifeguard if they are lost. Consider an ID bracelet for young children.

- Hole Digging. Digging super-deep holes can be dangerous as the sand can cave in on people down in the hole. Wide, shallow holes are safer. And cover any holes you've dug before you leave the beach. Holes are hazardous to ocean rescue personnel on the beach.

- Beach Driving. Just don't do it if you don't have 4WD. It's a huge hassle to get unstuck. And remember, you now need a permit from the National Park Service to drive in Cape Hatteras National Seashore.

- Going barefoot in hot sand. It's called footwear, people. And if you need shoes, your children need them too. And your dogs need foot protection too.

- Dogs. First be sure that dogs are allowed at your chosen beach. If you do take the dog to the beach, be sure to provide shade and shelter.

- Sunscreen or sun protection. Does it need saying? Apparently so. Lifeguards are continually amazed at how many people don't protect themselves, their children and even their babies from the sun.

- Dune climbing. It's important to stay off the beach dunes as they provide erosion protection.

- Litter. Let's all leave the beach cleaner than we found it.

OK - beyond the beach, what's going on for Memorial Day weekend? Bypass drivers take note that there are new 45 mph speed limit zones. From Villa Dunes Drive in Nags Head to the Wright Brothers National Memorial in KDH, the speed limit is now 45 mph. The speed limit has been decreased on a portion of Colington Road and in Duck from Sandy Ridge Road to the Currituck/Dare line.

This weekend it's all about the night on the town. I don't have the time to give you a rundown on all the live music and stuff happening in the bars from Thursday through Monday. But I don't have to because it's all in our Nightlife listings. You'll be surprised at everything that's going on this weekend.

In the daytime hours, there are some fun things to do - if you're not going to be on the beach with everybody else.

The Manteo Farmers Market on Saturday morning from 8 a.m. to noon is a good bet. Pick up your veggies for the weekend, have a sweet treat and do a little shopping - both at the market and in downtown Manteo.

Continue that shopping spree at the Outer Banks Spring Festival, an arts and crafts show sponsored by the Outer Banks Woman's Club. It's on Saturday and Sunday at the Baum Center in KDH.

If you're going to be on Ocracoke this weekend (wish I was!), the Ocracoke Firemen's Ball on Saturday sounds like a great time. A benefit for the new fire hall, it is a pig pickin', an auction and a dance. Last year they raised $61,000! The pig will be eaten at 5 p.m., followed by the auction, then the live music at 8:30 p.m.

There's a free Wolf Howling Safari (the last free one for a while) on Saturday at 7 p.m. in the Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge. On a howling you can learn about endangered red wolves and hear them howl.

In Currituck Heritage Park in Corolla this weekend, there are a few different events. One is the Outer Banks Beach Music Festival on Sunday from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. The Holiday Band, The Craig Woolard Band and Band of Oz are playing, and barbecue and beer will be sold. On Monday in Currituck Heritage Park it's the Blues and Brews Festival. Sample beer and wine from 4 to 8 p.m. and enjoy a blues concert by Lil' Ray Neal Blues Band with Jackie Scott from 7 to 10 p.m.

Start Memorial Day off on the right foot with a nice 5K run. The first annual Shore Break 5K will be held at 8 a.m. on Monday in Avon. Proceeds will benefit the OBX GO FAR running program and the Hatteras Island Youth Education Fund. There's a Fun Run too.

The Town of Nags Head is starting off Memorial Day with its annual Memorial Day Ceremony to honor those who have died serving our nation. The ceremony is at 11 a.m. at the Nags Head Municipal Complex at milepost 14.

Keep looking around our site. There is a lot more to do, By Day and in Nightlife, plus you'll find information about shopping sales, restaurant specials and fishing reports. And don't forget to enter our Weekly Giveaway on Facebook. Have a great holiday weekend!

About the Author Molly Harrison
Molly Harrison is managing editor at OneBoat, publisher of OuterBanksThisWeek.com. She moved to Nags Head in 1994 and since then has made her living writing articles and creating publications about the people, places and culture of the Outer Banks. When not working she practices and teaches yoga and spends as much time as possible outside and in or on the water with her husband and two children.