As the steam rises from the pavement like a cobra from its basket a double arched rainbow graces the summer sky. With their eerie allure, bioluminescence dances across the crest of each ocean wave, as if to welcome visitors to her shores. Ghost crabs scurry to and fro like dancers on a stage while wild sea grasses whisper quietly amongst the dunes.
Within the blink of an eye, all of this divine tranquility can mutate like a runaway science project. Strong winds often whip the currents into a fury bringing with them unpredictable waves and unforgiving water temperatures. However, this exposure to nature in its most raw state is part of the beauty of the Outer Banks — and, luckily for all those in attendance, there are a sturdy group of professionals in place ready to make sure visitors and local alike are aware and informed when such conditions arise.
Kristin Weaver, a Dare County EMT and lifeguard for KDH Ocean Rescue, says the unpredictable conditions in the area “is quite amazing.”
The water temperature as a prime example: One day, it is a balmy 75 degrees, and less than 24 hours later, Bam! — it’s dropped to a teeth-chattering 59 degrees.”
“Our predominant water is the Labrador current (a cold North Atlantic current which flows from the Arctic Ocean south), when the water does get warm we are experiencing eddies from the gulf stream (a warm, swift current beginning in the Gulf of Mexico),” Weaver says. “It’s pretty wild because all it takes is a west wind to push those eddies back out, and we are right back to having cold water again.”
On days where swimming resembles more of a polar plunge, there are many options that don’t involve wading into a deep freeze — but instead to stay above the waterline. Just make sure to properly educate yourself before heading out, as the winds can bring with them their own set of challenges.
“Since SUP’s (stand up paddle boards) have become more readily available, folks are going out more,” Weaver says, adding it’s a great way to enjoy the water, until you factor in a hard offshore wind.
“When the wind is offshore, it can be very hard to get back in against the wind,” she says. “One of our most common calls with ocean rescue is when folks get blown out on rafts. On one particular occasion, the person ended up 3 miles offshore.”
Her advice: Educate yourself on how to properly maneuver the craft you are using, or better yet, take a lesson from a pro, and always look at the wind speed, not just the wave height. And always ask a lifeguard if it’s a good day to go out.
As a patron of the Atlantic for many years, Weaver says it has become breathtakingly clear that entering and exiting the water can be two vastly different experiences.
“Be aware of shore break. It’s very dangerous,” Weaver says. “Don’t just go for it, and dive headfirst. Always be aware of depths, as shallow water can cause spinal injuries.”
Feet-first is the only option, and this applies to pools, docks and soundside accesses.
“And when the waves do come up, always have a buddy because the surf here gets heavy, and it is very easy to get sucked out.”
Think of the beach like approaching a traffic light; check to see if there are any hazards noted on the lifeguard stand, if not, then proceed about your joyous beach day as usual.
However, if yellow flags are present swimmers should exercise caution as there could potentially be strong currents, undertows and high surf.
See a red flag? Time to park it on the sand, as this indicates the water is highly hazardous and closed for swimming.
While limitations on the beach/in the water may seem a large inconvenience, especially for those here on vacation, the ocean rescue team has put in many hours training so that they may recognize a hazardous situation before you and I are even aware a threat is present.
These folks are stewards of the ocean, in place to ensure we all have the most pleasant and safe experience possible.
As a first and last line of defense, Weaver says, “Always know the address where you are staying, which town you are located in and the name of the beach access where you are hanging out. Should an accident occur, you always want to be prepared.”