Marylanders planning to travel to Ocean City for the Labor Day holiday need to be aware of the potential for dangerous rip currents because of tropical storm Cristobal, which continues to churn far out in the Atlantic.
So far this summer Ocean City has seen a number of deaths related to rip currents, including an 18-year-old from Virginia who drowned Tuesday, leading town officials to post swimming restrictions that could last into the weekend.
In an interview in July, Capt. Butch Arbin, head of the Ocean City Beach Patrol, said that while this summer has been a fairly typical one, the weather has had a greater impact on the coastline than last year.
"Last summer we called it Lake Ocean City, with fewer storms, hurricanes and so less rip current at the beach," said Arbin, who is from Parkville and has worked as a lifeguard for 42 years.
He attributed most of this year's drownings to rip currents, adding that at least one involved alcohol and two involved people who either could not swim or had little swimming ability.
How many rescues have you had this season — is it higher or lower than in a typical summer?
Overall, we're at about where we normally would be on rescues. … Based on conditions, based on tides, wind direction and height and those types of things, we're seeing a pretty normal summer. We had 51 rescues over the Fourth of July holiday. [But] we don't wait for that person going down, so our rescue numbers are not really correlated to the most serious things. If we had 200 rescues in a day, that doesn't mean 200 people almost died.
In fact my estimate over time is that about 80 percent of the people we rescue would have gotten themselves out of trouble, but we don't want to make people wait and panic. If you're a mom there on the beach watching your kid, you don't want us to wait either. We haven't seen any more active season this year than last year — some weeks it's more and some weeks it's less.
How do people at the beach know it's a dangerous day in the water? I know that the Beach Patrol doesn't use the flags like some places.
"The flags — they find the flags do very little. They've done research on places that say swim between this flag and this flag and it's safe. Not really. Every [Ocean City] guard has two red flags. And that's saying it's dangerous all the time. I would never have a green flag out there because it's never safe in the ocean. The ocean is a dynamic environment. There's shore break. People can dive in and break their neck. People can ride a wave into shore. There are rip currents.
We also have something here which is different. In a lot of places around the world, they have basically rip currents that stay there — it's a deep channel of water. Or you have what's called a boundary rip — we have a rock pile down here where the wave hits and bends. That's always there. But what we have along a barrier island — basically Ocean City, Delaware seashore, Assateague — we have what are called flash rips.
So there's not a rip current there, but all of a sudden a big wave set comes in. See the water has to go back out. The water can't just keep piling up on the beach. … So if a wave comes in here and deposits this much water, where's that water going to go? Well, it has to go sideways until it all equals out. But all of that water volume in that trough has to go back out and that's what causes a rip current — the water trying to make its way back out to the sea and anything in its path gets pulled out.
So how do you get the word out to visitors about rip currents?
We have a three-part mission in Ocean City — it's education, that's number one; secondly is prevention and then intervention, going in and doing something. Education is our big thing. One thing we do here is every guard, every crew on Sundays, we pull everybody together and do a beach safety seminar. … We hand out waterproof first aid kits, we give sunscreen, we give pencils, safety brochures. That's every Sunday because people who are weekly here basically come in Saturday to Saturday and Sunday is their first day on the beach. So all along 10 miles of beach we're doing these safety seminars. The most important thing we do is EDU – an abbreviation for education. The guard will simply blow his whistle to pull the people together and from their stand they will basically give a safety seminar. They do that several times a day.
What would you tell people who are coming to the beach who are perhaps not great swimmers or non-swimmers. What would be your advice?
We have two main messages. No. 1 — it's our slogan — "keep your feet in the sand until the lifeguard's in the stand." And that's a reminder to not swim when we're not on the beach. We had three years in a row where a parent drowned trying to rescue their own children that they let go swimming either before or after we were off-duty. …The number-one message is only swim when the beach patrol is on duty.
The second piece of advice we give is to check in with the lifeguard. So walk over to the lifeguard and introduce yourself. We see 2,000 lost-and-found kids a year. When you bring your family over, say "Here's the lifeguard, they're a safe person." The lifeguard can talk to them about their swimming ability. If you say, "Well, I'm not a very good swimmer," the lifeguard can say, "Well stay right in front of me and only knee deep."
If you can't swim, should you even be in the ocean?
Well, I think it's OK to be in the ocean — if we're on duty and you're near a lifeguard and you're very aware of your swimming ability. Another issue we have is that people should not rely on artificial flotation devices. When I was a regular guard, one of my scariest rescues was a little girl. We used to have these blow-up mats you could rent — before boogie boards — and she was on a blow-up mat and the dad pushed her out in the ocean and she's just out there. And a wave hit and well, the mat pops up and the girl goes down. Just so happens I was on my way out and I dove down and came up with her in my arms. But that was luck. You wouldn't have thought the father would have left his kid that couldn't swim out in the middle of the ocean on a flotation device.
How does the beach patrol staff cope with drownings?
It's tough because you get this job and see yourself saving people. You don't take a job like this thinking OK, I'm going to be pulling out dead bodies. You see yourself rescuing people. Most of our guards are 18-22, and most of them aren't dealing with this type of tragedy personally, so it does affect them. I do a lot of counseling. … I take them back through it — what could you have done differently? The fact that a wave breaks over somebody, what could you have done differently? ... and then they can see that they did all they can.