Riptide risks prompt new safety effort along
Outer Banks beaches
By CATHERINE KOZAK, The Virginian-Pilot
© June 1, 2007
For 30 years, Michelle Koles has been coming to the Outer Banks, frolicking in the
ocean and playing in the surf. She didn't know about the treachery of rip currents,
the speed that they strike and the number of people they seize - until last year,
when her sister-in-law died in the ocean off a Rodanthe beach.
"She drowned at about 12 noon," Koles said. "We went to the funeral home in
Manteo. We came back about 4, and they were doing two more rescues. It was
the exact same area."
Rip currents, powerful channelled currents that flow away from shore, are
responsible for the majority of the drowning deaths on the Outer Banks.
Nationwide, the U.S. Lifesaving Association estimates that rip currents cause
more than 100 drownings a year and are responsible for more than 80 percent of
surf rescues by lifeguards.
The safest bet is to swim on a beach with a lifeguard. But on the 65 miles of
beach within Cape Hatteras National Seashore, no more than three beaches are
usually guarded. Coquina and Ocracoke are now manned, with the third possible
in Buxton soon.
The seashore averages five drownings a year, said Norah Martinez, chief ranger
for law enforcement and emergency services. In 2006, there were seven
drownings in Cape Hatteras. Most of them happened because swimmers were
caught in rips and didn't know how to get out of them.
Armed with a list of safety tips to hand out, "beach ambassadors" could change
that by educating beach-goers about how to stay safe in the water. Volunteers will
talk with visitors about the risks of rip currents at beach accesses and walkovers.
They will cruise the beach on two 4-by-4 vehicles, stopping along the way to chat
with vacationers about ocean safety.
Martinez said the goal is to have at least two volunteers a week in the Bodie
Island, Hatteras and Ocracoke districts. The pilot program is being launched with
a $30,000 grant and the help of partnerships with Dare County and the Eena
That's where Koles comes in.
Her sister-in-law Kristina Koles had spent much of her 32 years at the beach, so
she was an experienced ocean swimmer. She was young, fit and healthy. Yet, on
Sept. 22, she lost her life in a surging current of water.
The problem was - like many visitors - she didn't know how to recognize a rip
current, and she didn't know what to do if she was caught in one. Working in
cooperation with the park service's program, the Eena Project is dedicated to
teaching people how not to become another statistic.
The Koleses were vacationing in Rodanthe to celebrate the second birthday of
Kristina's nephew Jacob. He called his aunt "Eena."
Once the family returned to their East Providence, R.I., home, Michelle and her
husband decided to put their skills to good use.
"We kind of settled down and said, 'We need to do something,' " she said.
By April, the couple had assembled a package of educational material on rip
currents - a DVD, a magnet and brochure - and persuaded Outer Banks rental
companies and innkeepers to put them in 13,000 of the 15,600 units.
"A drowning death is never even something we thought about," Koles said,
"especially because we're all adults."
Cole Yeatts, the director of Kitty Hawk Ocean Rescue, said the value of public
education about rip currents was seared into him in his first year on the job six
years ago. Shortly after lifeguards had talked to her about rip currents, Christina
LeFax, then 18, found herself struggling in one. In the nick of time, she
remembered what the lifeguards said, calmed herself down and escaped by
swimming parallel to shore.
LeFax's story is used as an example in the Eena Project DVD of what a difference
education can make.
"What we want is for people to be 'beach safe,' " Yeatts said.
Rip currents are created by low spots in sandbars where water rushes through,
he said. They're also common near jetties and piers - anywhere where water is
redirected. They do not pull you under, they pull you out. Typically, they dissipate
past the sandbar.
But even littoral currents, the ones that pull a swimmer parallel along the beach,
can be feeder currents to rip currents.
"Think of it as an opening in the gate," Yeatts said. "It catches you off guard."
Yeatts has helped the park service and the Eena Project in getting their
educational programs off the ground. With an average of 130 ocean rescues and
emergencies a year, and only one water fatality - likely a medical condition - since
he's been on the job, Yeatts is a big believer in being proactive.
Red flags flying on the beach, warning that conditions are too dangerous to go in
the ocean, are expected to be abided by in Kitty Hawk, he said, or swimmers
could be fined $250.
But once they understand that rip currents could ruin a vacation with a trip in an
ambulance, he said, or more tragically, take a life within a moment, people
"They're here to enjoy themselves and relax," Yeatts said.
• Reach Catherine Kozak at (252) 441-1711 or email@example.com.