Atlantic Beach, N.C. — The sky is blue, the water inviting. Less apparent, but no less real, is the danger from powerful, unpredictable currents that can drag an unwary or panicking swimmer out to sea.
Six people, including a newlywed and a mother, died this week while fighting rip currents along a 100-mile stretch of North Carolina coast at the height of the summer tourist season.
Trouble arises when visitors "go on vacation and leave their brains at home," Ted Lewis, a lifeguard at 5-mile-long Atlantic Beach, said Friday. "Only about 2 percent of the people on the beach on any given day will ask about the water conditions."
A system of colored flags advises bathers of the water's relative safety. Green means the water is safe, orange warns of jellyfish, yellow is a general caution flag.
Red flags hanging over lifeguard watchtowers caution people to stay out of rough surf, or at least go no farther than knee-deep into the water. For surfers such as David Strickland, 22, they're no deterrent.
"I was here on Monday when the drownings happened, and there wasn't too much of a current," he said Friday at Atlantic Beach.
Meteorologists also say the water at Atlantic Beach this week wasn't out of the ordinary, but because of thunderstorms, tides were higher, increasing the water pressure.
"Rip currents are usually not life-threatening, and you can easily avoid them," said Spencer Rogers, a coastal erosion specialist.
To explain how, the Atlantic Beach Fire Department has Boy Scouts handing out pamphlets explaining rip currents, and public service announcements have aired on television.
Rip currents occur where water, seeking a path of least resistance to the open sea, speeds through channels between sandbars that can be created by hurricanes and thunderstorms, said Richard Bandy, meteorologist for the National Weather Service. The currents tend to linger for days, even weeks.
If you're swimming or standing in the channels created by the elevated sand, the water can rush out from beneath you and pull you away from the shore.
"Think of it as water in a funnel," Bandy said. "The water sitting on top of a funnel seems to be slowing sinking, but getting channeled through a smaller area, it has to flow faster."
Sometimes rip currents can be seen from the shore, indicated by discolored water and sediment floating near the surface. The currents are 20 to 50 feet long, and go as far as 50 to 100 feet.
Even the strongest swimmer can become exhausted trying to swim directly against the fast-moving waters. Experts recommend riding out the current, swimming parallel to the shore, then heading in once it dissipates.
"It's important not to panic as the currents leave the shore," Rogers said.
On the Net: Rip current safety information from North Carolina State University: www.ncsu.edu/seagrant