Rip currents are nearly always visible to trained eyes near the mostly submerged jetty between Kentucky Avenue and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard in Atlantic City.
This is where 10-year-old Khitan Devine, of North Carolina, disappeared Sunday evening after he and several family members got caught in a rip current on a warm, late spring night after lifeguards had left for the day. Sunday’s rescue mission turned to recovery Monday only to be suspended, restarted and suspended again Tuesday.
“A lot of people, they hear the term 'rip current,' a lot of people don’t know what they look like, what they do or how to get out of them,” said Robert Ogoreuc, President of the National Drowning Prevention Alliance.
Rip currents can vary in appearance. The one over the Martin Luther King Boulevard jetty Tuesday afternoon looked like a turbulent river rushing against the incoming waves. At other places, rip currents can look like a smooth spot in between breakers. Lifeguards also look for different colored water, floating lines of foam or even chunks of seaweed concentrated in an area rushing away from the beach.
Tuesday afternoon, just 20 feet away from the jetty where Khitan was swept away, Jimmy Brown, 40, of Atlanta, played in ankle deep water with his 5-year-old daughter Zaria. Brown said he'd never heard of a rip current, but had heard of the incident nearby. “It makes me watch the kids more and stay alert,” he said.
Brown said one of his sons, Jimmy, 11, was among the first to rush into the water. “He can’t wait to get in the water,” Brown said. “I can stop him. He will listen to me.”
Brown said he does know how to swim, but his children still are learning. “I don’t go far. I keep them safe,” he said as he held Zaria’s hand.
Tips on how to save your own life if you get caught in a rip current frequently are posted along beach entrances throughout the country — including at the wooden walkover near the jetty, or groin, where Khitan went missing. The most important advice: Stay calm, go with the flow out to sea and then gradually swim back to shore in a diagonal direction. In other words, don’t fight the current and don’t panic. And never swim on unguarded beaches.
While Khitan’s mother, Tamika Wilder, told The Press of Atlantic City that her son knew how to swim, but many beachgoers don’t have basic swimming skills. Many more don’t recognize the difference between swimming in a pool and swimming in the ocean.
Bruckner Chase, an Ocean City-based swimming instructor and ocean swimming advocate, said that often people who go into the water don’t have a good assessment of their swimming strength or the strength of the ocean. “There’s a common disconnect between the environment that they are walking next to or wading in,” he said.
Rip currents almost always exist near structures in the water, whether they are submerged or not, said Jon Miller, a professor at Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken. Miller describes the scenario as this: Wave energy is coming toward shore, but when it hits a structure such as a jetty, groin, rock wall or pier, that energy is deflected back to sea quickly. That concentrated energy is what forms the current rushing against the incoming waves.
The currents also form in areas where there is a break in a sandbar just offshore, because that allows water returning back to sea from shore a faster route, Miller said.
Miller recently developed a smart phone app for beach patrols as a way to gather more information about rip currents and where they form. Information that lifeguards have regarding the frequency and intensity of the currents on their beach rarely reaches the National Weather Service, which puts out general forecasts, or coastal engineering researchers, who study the currents and what causes them, Miller said.
The app is in testing in Spring Lake, Sea Girt, Seaside Park and Belmar, Miller said, but Stevens Institute researchers hope to involve beach patrols throughout New Jersey.
“Really the strength of this whole app is the more reports we start to see, the more valuable it is to the National Weather Service,” he said.
Any difference in the waves, whether it’s a place where the waves seem smaller or are a different color or even filled with seaweed, can be an indicator of a rip current, said Ogoreuc, who used to be a training officer for the Ocean City Beach Patrol and now works as a professor in western Pennsylvania.
“When Mom and Dad come out on the beach, and they’re looking at the waves, families come down (to the water) and say ‘oh there’s no waves breaking here, it must be a safe place to swim,” Ogoreuc said. “The fact is, the reason there’s no waves there is there’s a rip current suppressing the waves.”
But knowing where the currents are is only part of keeping people safe. Knowing how to swim also is critical, but many vacationers either don’t know how to swim or they don’t know how to swim well. The National Drowning Prevention Alliance uses three key concepts on improving safety — knowing how to swim, never swimming alone and know the environment in which you’re swimming, Ogoreuc said.
Teaching children to swim, whether they live near the coast or inland, is a critical component to public safety, Ogoreuc said, because the skills can help you save your own life. “People need to start getting swimming lessons early, but even if you’re an adult, find adult swimming lessons,” he said. “Every community has to take a look and invest in the safety of their kids.”
Those lessons should not just be about learning to float and move around in the water, but also how to handle different types of water because families go on vacation, Ogoreuc said.
Ocean City is one municipality that is trying to improve water safety by offering free swimming lessons to certain third-graders at the city’s primary school. Teachers select the students they know who may not be able to afford swimming lessons, and every spring, that year’s group attends lessons provided by volunteers at the Ocean City Aquatic and Fitness Center, said Karen Pratz, the center’s aquatics program director.
"They live on an island, and they need to learn how to swim. That was the whole point," Pratz said.
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