Water Safety Tips
Most of the time, you don't even notice the bare flagpoles dotting the dunes up and down our coast. But when
the ocean is too rough for swimming, there's no way you can miss the red flags hoisted all along the beach.
If red flags are flying, do not go into the water at all. Not only will the ocean be too dangerous for swimming or
wading, it is against the law to swim during a red-flag warning. You will be fined for going into the water.
The flags signify not only dangerous waves, but deadly rip currents as well. Churning water can easily knock you down,
and reports of broken bones are not uncommon. Rough water also produces floating debris, such as ships' timbers that
seems to come from nowhere. We've seen adult men wading in knee-deep water knocked down by powerful waves and
dragged by rip currents on red-flag days. In short, even if you see surfers in the water, stay out while the flags
are flying, and caution children to keep well away from the tide line. Keep in mind, too, that if you go into
the water while the flags are flying and need rescuing, you are jeopardizing not only your life but also the lifeguard's
life when he or she has to come in after you.
• Never swim alone.
• Never swim at night.
• Observe the surf before going in
the water, looking for potentially
• Non-swimmers should stay out of
the water and wear life jackets if
they're going to be near the water.
• Swim in areas with on-duty
lifeguards, or use extreme care.
• Keep non-swimming children well
above the marks of the highest
• Keep an eye on children at all
times, and teach them never to
turn their backs on the waves while
they play at water's edge.
• Don't swim near anglers or
deployed fishing lines.
• Stay 300 feet away from fishing
• Watch out for surfers and give
them plenty of room.
Losing Control in the Waves
If a wave crashes down on you while you are surfing or swimming, and you find yourself being tumbled in
bubbles and sand like a sheet in a washing machine, don't try to struggle to the surface against it. Curl into a
ball, or just go limp and float. The wave will take you to the beach, or you can just swim to the surface when it
A backwash current on a steeply sloping beach can pull you toward deeper water, but its power is swiftly checked
by incoming waves. To escape this current, swim straight toward shore if you're a strong swimmer. If you're not,
don't panic; wait and float until the current stops, then swim in.
The littoral current is a "river of water" moving up or down the shoreline parallel to the beach. It is created by the
angled approach of the waves. In stormy conditions, this current can be very powerful due to high wave energy.
Rip currents often occur where there's a break in a submerged sandbar. Water trapped between the sandbar and
the beach rushes out through the breach, sometimes sweeping swimmers out with it. You can see a rip; it's choppy,
turbulent, often discolored water that looks deeper than the water around it. If you are caught in a rip, don't try
to swim against the current. Instead, swim across the current, parallel to the shore, and slowly work your way back
to the beach at an angle. Try to remain calm. Panic will only sap the energy you need to swim out of the rip. Click
here for illustration.
When a wave comes up on the beach and breaks, the water must run back down to the sea. This is undertow.
It sucks at your ankles from small waves, but in heavy surf the undertow can knock you off your feet and carry you
offshore. If you're carried out, don't resist. Let the undertow take you out until it subsides. It will only be a
few yards. The next wave will help push you shoreward again.
Watch for jellyfish floating on the surface or in the water. While some can give little more than an annoying
stinging sensation, others can produce severe discomfort. The Portuguese man-of-war is sometimes blown onto Outer
Banks beaches and can be recognized by its distinctive balloon-like airbladder, often exhibiting a bluish tint.
Man-of-war stings can be serious. Anyone who is stung by the tentacles and develops breathing difficulties or
generalized body swelling should be transported to the nearest emergency facility for treatment. In extreme cases,
death can result from anaphylactic shock associated with man-of-war toxin exposure.
If you're stung by a jellyfish, apply vinegar or meat tenderizer to the affected area. Don't rub the wound site,
since rubbing can force toxins deeper into the skin. Pain relievers can also allay some discomfort. Infections can
occur, so it's also a good idea to see a doctor.
June through November marks our hurricane season. Basically, the whole shoreline of the East Coast is threatened when
a hurricane blows in, but because of our low elevation, lack of shelter and our situation in the ocean, the barrier
islands known as the Outer Banks are especially vulnerable to storms. Forecasters and almanac writers state that
a hurricane strikes the Outer Banks approximately once every nine years.
After the active hurricane season of 1999, visitors and locals alike were reminded of the dangers these huge storms
can bring. It's wise to be prepared by packing a hurricane kit in advance. Seethe gray box below for a list of
items to include in such a kit.
When Dare County officials order an evacuation, everyone must leave the Outer Banks. This includes everyone from
vacationers who have already paid for their week's stay to permanent residents who are sometimes hesitant to leave their
homes. Newspapers, radio, and television stations keep the public notified about evacuations as well as re-entry
information. Make plans early especially if you have pets or elderly people with you. The Weather Channel
(channel 16 in the local cable listing) will issue early warnings or signs of an approaching storm. By all means,
stay off the beaches and out of the water especially during an electrical storm.
Tornadoes spawned by hurricanes are among the worst weather-related killers. When a hurricane approaches, listen
for tornado watches and warnings. (A tornado watch means conditions are favorable for tornadoes to develop.
A warning means a tornado has been sighted). When a warning is issued, seek shelter immediately, preferably in an
inside room away from any windows. If you are outside at the time and a tornado is headed your way, move away
from its path at a right angle. If you feel you don't have time to escape, lie flat in a ditch or ravine.
Here are some guidelines to help you stay safe if a hurricane threatens.
• By late May, recheck your supply
of boards, tools, batteries, non-
perishable foods and other items
you may need during a hurricane.
• Listen to the latest weather
reports and official notices. This
will give you advance notice,
sometimes before watches and
warnings are issued. Keep a
battery-powered radio on hand in
case the power goes out.
• If your area comes under a
hurricane watch, continue normal
activities but stay tuned to the
Weather Channel or to a local
radio station and ignore rumors.
• If your area receives a hurricane
warning, stay calm. Leave low-
lying areas that may be swept by
high tides or storm waves. If
there's time, secure mobile homes
before leaving for more substantial shelter. Move automobiles to
high ground as both sound and sea
can flood even central spots on the
• Moor boats securely or haul them
out of the water to a safe place.
• Board up windows or protect them
with storm shutters. (Though some
people recommend using tape on
windows, many experts and most
locals will tell you tape isn't strong
enough to work and it's very
difficult to remove). Secure
outdoor objects that might blow
away such as garbage cans, outdoor
furniture, tools, etc. that may
become dangerous missiles in high
winds. If the items can't be tied
down, bring them inside.
• Store drinking water in clean
bathtubs, jugs or bottles since
water supplies can become
contaminated by hurricane floods.
• Be sure you have lots of flashlights,
batteries, a battery-operated
radio, and perhaps emergency
• Keep your car fueled since service
stations may be inoperable for
several days following a storm.
• Stay indoors during a storm, and
keep your pets inside too. Do not
attempt to travel by foot or car.
Monitor weather conditions and
don't be fooled by the calm of the
hurricane's eye ? the storm isn't
• Stay out of disaster areas unless
you are qualified to help. Your
presence might hamper rescue
• If necessary, seek medical attention at the nearest Red Cross
disaster station or health center.
• Do not travel except in an
emergency such as transporting
someone who is injured. Be careful
along debris-filled streets and
highways. Roads may be under-
mined and could collapse under the
weight of the car. Floodwater could
hide dangerous holes in the road.
• Avoid loose and dangling wires.
Report them to North Carolina
Power or the police.
• Report broken sewer or water
mains to the county or town water
• Be careful not to start fires.
Lowered water pressure may make
fire fighting difficult.
• Stay away from rivers and streams.
• Check roofs, windows and outdoor
storage areas for wind or water
• Do not let young children or your
pets outside immediately after a
storm. There are numerous
dangers like fallen power lines and
wild animals that have been
disoriented because of the storm.
Remember, you already possess the most important safety tool - common sense.
Use it often and you're sure to have a safe and enjoyable vacation.
from the Hawaiian Lifeguard Association
Sharp coral: Many beaches have sharp coral reefs close to the shoreline. Use caution when swimming gin shallow reef
areas. Should you be injured, see a lifeguard for minor first aid assistance. Should coral become embedded deeply see
your doctor as soon as possible to have it removed. Deep cuts should be attended to by a physician to avoid the risk of
infection. If you're tide pooling or reef walking wear protective foot gear.
Dangerous shore break: This is the condition when waves break directly on the shore. Shore breaks are unpredictable
and dangerous. They have caused many serious neck and spinal injuries to both experienced and inexperienced bodysurfers
and swimmers. Small waves can be very dangerous, too. Be sure to ask a lifeguard about the wave conditions at the beach
you may be attending. Be especially careful when the surf's up and conditions at the beach you may be attending.
High surf: Large powerful waves are generated by winds and storms at sea sometimes thousands of miles from the
Hawaiian Islands. If you're uncertain of your abilities, don't go into the ocean during high surf, heed all posted
high surf warnings.
Strong current: These are swift moving channels of water against which it is difficult to swim. Strong currents
frequently accompany high surf and rapid tide changes and can be recognized as a turbulent channel of water between areas
where waves are breaking. When caught in a strong current, try to keep a level head and don't panic. Wave one or both
hands in the air, and scream or call for help. Swim diagonally to the current, not against it.
Waves on ledge: These are large waves originating from deep water breaking on rock ledges. However, this
condition can occur even when the water appears to be calm. Be very cautious when walking along rocky coastlines
where waves are breaking. Rocks become slippery and are sharp, abrasive lava stone. Lava is very porous and it
crumbles easily. Don't ever go into the wet rocky zone. The ocean is unpredictable and has been known to wash people
away. Don't put yourself in a position where you could be swept away. Please Heed all posted warnings. Your life could
depend on it.
Some basic ocean safety tips:
• Swim in areas with lifeguards
• Never swim alone
• Don't dive into unknown water or
into shallow breaking waves
• Ask a lifeguard about beach and
surf conditions before swimming
• If you are unable to swim out of a
strong current, signal for help
• Rely on your swimming ability
rather than a flotation device