CAROLINA BEACH – Vincent Klock was bodysurfing toward the beach when his momentum suddenly turned and he was whisked away from shore. He was caught in a rip current.
“The current was just pulling me,” the New Jersey man recalled as he sat on a North Carolina beach earlier this week. “I didn’t really know what was going on.”
Scientists wading into the surf nearby were hoping to find some answers.
As Klock and others soaked up the sun along Carolina Beach, researchers from the North Carolina Sea Grant and the University of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia, launched a series of GPS-equipped “drifters” in hopes of better understanding deadly rip currents.
“Any beach with breaking waves is going to have rips,” Rob Brander, a coastal geomorphologist and senior lecturer at the Australian university, said as he held one of the green-and-white devices Wednesday. “And if you don’t know what a rip current is, you’re at risk.”
From Oregon to New York, and even along the major lakes in between, rip currents claimed at least 83 lives last year, according to the National Weather Service. Experts believe the actual toll was even higher.
The United States Lifesaving Association, a nonprofit lifeguard group, estimates there are around 100 rip current deaths per year. Scientists at Florida International University place the annual toll at around 150, “and they estimate there’s probably a lot more than that,” said Deborah Jones, a weather service program analyst and outreach coordinator with the rip current program in Silver Spring, Maryland.
Many people swim at night or on remote beaches with no lifeguards, Jones said.
“So you can’t account for everybody who might have drowned in a rip current,” she said.
About 80 percent of swimmers who need to be rescued in the ocean are caught in them, according to the lifeguard group.
Brander, known in the field as “Dr. Rip,” said the currents are basically like a “river of the ocean.”
“Rivers flow in one direction,” said Brander, who’s spending a month at the Center for Marine Science at the University of North Carolina-Wilmington. “They’re narrow, and they flow offshore. And that’s where they’re going to take you.”
Klock knows that all too well. He’s been caught in at least three, the worst back home in Jersey.
“I was like, ‘Wow,’ because you can feel it pulling you out,” he said. “And I just turned my body and started to swim until I broke the current.”
Brander said the scientists used inexpensive, off-the-shelf, GPS units connected to multiple satellites to log locational data. Then they processed the data for accuracy.
Jordan Cornelius is a lifeguard who has seen plenty of rip currents. He said the currents form when there is a break between two sandbars in the water. And they’re hard for the average beachgoer to see.
“I’ve seen them start from immediately right on the shore, to going just 20 yards out,” he said.
So far this year, the weather service has counted 31 rip current fatalities, less than half the total at this time last year.
“That is a good trend,” Wayne Presnell, a meteorologist with the agency’s Marine and Coastal Weather Services Branch, wrote in an email. “There are probably many factors causing the decline but the NWS believes the overall increase in rip current education and outreach is one reason.”