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Lifeguards Look for Rip Currents: Choppy Water Killed 3 on Strand This Year

September 3, 2007

By Jessica Foster, The Sun News, Myrtle Beach, S.C.

Sep. 3–As vacationers flocked to the beach Sunday during the last major tourist weekend of the summer, lifeguards kept a close watch for rip currents in the choppy waters along the coast.

August and September are peak months for rip-current drownings and rescues because of storms associated with hurricane season and the high number of people on the beach, meteorologists say.

Wes Cox, manager of Lack’s Beach Service lifeguards in Myrtle Beach, said his lifeguards this year have seen a typical number of rescues and drownings caused by rip currents, which are narrow, fast-moving belts of water traveling offshore.

“Rip-current activity has been about average or below average due to the fact we haven’t had a lot of storms,” Cox said. “We’re used to having close calls three or four times a season.”

The second Atlantic hurricane of the season, Hurricane Felix, churned and strengthened in the Caribbean Sea on Sunday, but islands are expected to block dangerous swells from hitting the Grand Strand, said Dave Loewenthal, a forecaster with the National Weather Service.

Hurricane Dean, which formed in the Atlantic in August, caused rip currents along the coast of Horry County that led to at least 56 rescues and one drowning.

Hurricane Dean prompted Myrtle Beach police and lifeguards to restrict swimmers to waist-deep water along city beaches, which lifeguards continued to enforce on Sunday.

“Everyone is waist deep and no one is going past that,” said Christina Ronci, a lifeguard with Lack’s. Under normal conditions, people can go in up to their shoulders, she said.

Ronci patrols the beach at 11th Avenue South in Myrtle Beach, where rip currents are known to be particularly bad, she said.

No-swimming flags mark one section of the beach near her post where there is always a danger of rip currents. Lifeguards can also post flags where they see discolored, choppy water that marks a rip current.

Some people got belligerent Sunday when asked not to swim in certain areas, Ronci said, but most know it’s for their own safety. “Most people are very cooperative,” she said.

So far this year, officials have reported at least three drownings along the Grand Strand because of rip currents.

On May 28, a teenager drowned in strong rip currents off Pawleys Island. Jose Guadalope Rodriguez Vigil, 18, of Andrews, was swimming with a group of family members off the south end of the island when strong rip currents swept him away.

On July 4, 33-year-old New Jersey native Hugo Valdes died in the hospital after getting caught in a rip current. He had been trying to save his son from drowning in Myrtle Beach waters.

Mary LaVonne Shannon, 44, of Mount Airy, Ga., died at Grand Strand Regional Medical Center on Aug. 24, four days after a rip current dragged her out into the ocean off the Myrtle Beach coast.

Rip currents caused at least one drowning in 2006 and at least six in 2005, officials said.

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Fast fact To swim out of a rip current, do not panic. Swim parallel to the beach. Do not swim against the current.

Contact JESSICA FOSTER at 626-0351 or jfoster@thesunnews.com.

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Copyright (c) 2007, The Sun News, Myrtle Beach, S.C.

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