NORTH WILDWOOD — Beach patrols are working with the National Weather Service to improve public awareness about New Jersey’s rip currents, the dangerous currents that can imperil swimmers by pulling them away from the beach.
Several local beach patrols took part in a national conference this month in Lewes, Delaware, to improve preparedness and predict when rip currents might be more likely.
Each morning this summer, lifeguards in South Jersey will call the Mount Holly weather office to get the daily forecast and relay local information about beach conditions.
“We hold this conference call to tell them the weather conditions we’re expecting,” meteorologist Kristin Kline said. “But we also try to gather input from them about what they’re seeing about rip currents and wave action.”
Rip currents can be found virtually anywhere along New Jersey’s 130 miles of Atlantic Ocean coastline. They are responsible for drownings almost every year on unguarded beaches in South Jersey.
“A rip current is a disturbance in the water. We describe it like a washing machine,” North Wildwood Beach Patrol Chief Tony Cavalier said.
“It has a lot of force. If you’re standing in the water, it will pick you up and take you out 20 or 30 yards, he said.”
Cavalier said rip currents typically form around structures such as jetties or outfall pipes. But storms can create unseen sandbars or carve new channels overnight, creating unsafe conditions on beaches that were flat just days earlier, he said.
The city posts signs warning bathers to beware of rip currents, and offering advice on what to do if you are caught in one — namely, by swimming parallel to the beach until the current ebbs, and then returning to shore.
Cavalier said it’s easy to panic when a rip current begins to pull you farther from shore than you had planned. Swimming against the current is practically impossible, he said.
“I got caught in one when I was about 8,” North Wildwood native Cavalier said. “I asked a bigger swimmer to help pull me out.”
Lifeguards are trained to spot signs of rip currents, he said. Often, the currents are found in choppy areas of surf with darker water where the sand and sediment is disturbed.
Greg and Barbara Lombardi, at the beach with son Matthew, 12, said the family always swims on guarded beaches.
“When my kids go out in the water, I do worry about it,” Barbara O’Neill, of Hatboro, Pennsylvania, said while relaxing on North Wildwood’s beach.
She had the beach to herself on a windy, rainy day.
“I usually don’t go in the water, but I know you’re supposed to stay calm and swim parallel to the beach to get out of one,” she said.
The weather service will use the daily reports from beach patrols to refine its daily surf zone forecast this summer. This should give beachgoers a better idea about what to expect on the water, Kline said.