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Heavy surf prompts nearly 200 rescues over two days in Ocean City

Sunday was a busy day for Ocean City lifeguards, and a dangerous one for swimmers.

Ocean City lifeguards made nearly 200 rescues Sunday and Monday, including more than a dozen while they were off duty, as heavy surf pounded the beach and caused dangerous rip currents.

Several swimmers had to be hospitalized, and an ambulance was called for three people who were pushed against rocks while swimming after lifeguards left for the evening Sunday, said Butch Arbin, captain of the Ocean City Beach Patrol.

On Monday, rip currents continued to prompt lifeguards to intervene, though no major incidents were reported. In most rescues, swimmers are not in distress but were at risk of being pulled away from shore by a rip current, Arbin said.

"If the person doesn't respond to the whistle and flags, then the lifeguard will make a rescue," Arbin said. "Most of them were the more preventative type of rescues."

Forecasts suggest the seas will start to calm Tuesday.

Rip currents occur when heavy surf fills the trough between the beach and sandbar just off shore. The water pressure can break a gap in the sandbar, sending water flowing away from the beach, pulling sand, seaweed and any swimmers with it. Swimmers are advised to swim parallel to shore to escape rip currents, instead of fighting the currents and attempting to swim toward the shore.

While the surf has been rough for days, a strong north-to-south current running parallel to shore kept many people from being caught in rip currents, Arbin said.

But that current died down Sunday, he said, making for more dangerous conditions.

Lifeguards have made as many as 150 rescues on a few other days this summer, but on Sunday the beach patrol was actively preventing swimmers from getting caught in rip currents, Arbin said. Lifeguards use flags and whistles to direct swimmers away from the currents, which appear as muddied sections of water without waves.

Through July 26, the beach patrol reported making nearly 1,500 rescues this summer, an average of 150 per week. Lifeguards had made about 1,400 rescues by a similar point in each of the last two summers.

The beach patrol reported 100 ambulance calls so far this summer, an average of 10 per week, compared with 86 at this point last year and 63 the year before.

No drownings have been reported in Ocean City this summer. Last summer, three people drowned. In most summers, there are one or two deaths, if any.

"We are expecting it to calm back down again," Arbin said.

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