• Spring-time view of the seashore, with shorebirds returning to the surf.

    Cape Hatteras

    National Seashore North Carolina

Be Aware of Dangerous Ocean Surf and Currents

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Date: August 25, 2010
Contact: Cyndy Holda, 252-473-2111 x148

Rough surf conditions routinely produce life-threatening rip currents capable of overtaking even the strongest swimmers and surfers. The National Park Service offers the following information and tips to help Outer Banks visitors avoid this potentially deadly ocean hazard.

Rip currents are channels of water that develop in an opening in a sand bar. Though relatively narrow near the beach, rip currents can increase to over 50 yards in width as they extend up to 1000 feet offshore.  The velocity of the water can be as high as 5 mph.

Rip currents can be identified before entering the water. Look for an area of murky water due to sediment mixing as the channel opened in the sandbar.  If the rip current has lasted a long time, the color of the water will appear darker than the surrounding water because of the channel carved by the flowing water.  Rip currents will also move objects and/or foam steadily seaward and will cause a break in the incoming wave pattern.

The most common mistake of those caught in a rip current is to panic and attempt to swim directly back toward the shore.  Even the best Olympic swimmers can not successfully swim towards the shore in the strongest rip currents.  Rip currents can pull a swimmer away from the shore but not under the water.

Safety Tips

  • Stay out of the water during dangerous surf conditions.
  • Know how to swim.  Non-swimmers should not rely on floats, such as boogie boards, while in deep water.
  • Always swim near a lifeguard.
  • Locate rip currents before entering the water.
  • Tune in to NOAA weather radio and monitor websites (National Weather Service, Eastern Dare County , NC ) and local media for updated surf conditions during your stay on the Outer Banks.
  • Check with the lifeguards about rip currents and other hazardous conditions.
  • Do not attempt to rescue someone caught in a rip current. Notify a lifeguard or, if there is no lifeguard, yell directions on how to escape, throw the victim something that floats, and call 911.

 What to do if caught in a rip current:

  • Remain calm.  Remember, it will not pull you under.
  • Swim parallel to the shore until you break free, then swim diagonally toward the shore.
  • If you cannot swim out of the current, float until it weakens, then swim diagonally toward the shore.
  • Summon help by waving your hands.
  • For more information on rip currents, ask a lifeguard or check the website at http://www.ripcurrents.noaa.gov.

Did You Know?

Lightning whelks are one of the few species of

Lightning whelks eat about one large clam per month. The whelk pries the clam open with its muscular foot, wedges the clam open with its shell, then eats the soft inside of the clam. Lightning whelk shells, which whorl to the left, wash up on the beach at Cape Hatteras National Seashore.