Tropical Safety: When storms are away, in the ocean we play

Tropical systems can be a source of fun and danger at the beach.  I know from personal experience that when I got to the beach, I don’t want to see calm seas.   I like waves.   The bigger the waves are, the more fun I have playing in them.

There was always common sense involved though.   I never went out there alone.  I wouldn’t go out in high surf at night.  When lifeguards were around, I always tried to pick a spot near them.  While high surf can be fun, knowing the inherent dangers involved is key to enjoying your experience.

Unfortunately, when Hurricane Gert moved up the east coast this month, not everyone was able to survive their experience.  A rip current off Nantucket took several swimmers out to sea and despite a quick and heroic response by local lifeguards, 1 swimmer tragically lost their life to the heavy surf.  This rip current, and the 12 foot waves that accompanied it, occurred despite the Hurricane being more than 400 miles away.  High surf advisories were in effect at the time but several beaches didn’t close until later in the day.

While Tropical Storm Harvey does not pose a risk at this time to the United States, there are several storms in the Atlantic that bear watching.  These storms could produce the same style of swells that the east coast saw with Gert.   Safety in landfalling Tropical Cyclones is a very obvious need, but the less obvious safety risks associated with tropical systems that aren’t approaching your area may be less obvious.  Listed below are some things to look for in heavy surf conditions and some hazards to be wary of when at the beach during storms that aren’t right on your doorstep, but don’t think they can only occur when tropical systems are at sea, while they are more common during this time period, all of these hazards can occur at anytime.

Tropical Hazards in the Ocean

Sneaker Waves

Sneaker waves are generally found along the west coast of the United States.  Somewhat similar to the phenomenon of Rogue waves,  Sneaker waves are unpredictable large waves which can appear without warning and travel much farther up the beach than normal, even when the ocean seems calm.  Some sneaker waves have  been seen to move up to 150 feet higher up the beach than the preceding waves.  That puts an adult beach goer in water potentially up to their waste in water when they were on dry land moments before.  This would be over the heads of smaller children.

A wave of this force would also batter the person impacted by it causing them to fall, and many swimmers have reported being pulled out into the ocean as the waves recedes.  Objects in the ocean or on the beach can also be dangerous in these situations.  Imagine someones beach chair being picked up in a wave and tossed into you as you walk along the beach.

For swimmers in the water, this wave could temporarily put the water level way over your head and will create a significant undertow.  Even a swimmer who was only 50 feet from shore could now be up to 200 feet from the beach.  The advice for this type of wave is the same as a rip current.  Swim parallel to the beach.  The Sneaker wave will not take up the entire area of the beach.  Pay attention to your surroundings and find the closest edge of the wave and swim out of it.

Rip Currents

This rip current, created by the breach in the sand bar, is rather obvious.  You can see the current pouring through the break and the effects it has on the ocean side of the sandbar.    Not all currents make things this simple though.   If this sandbar had been underwater, the rip current would still exist,you just wouldn’t be able to see it as well.  For example,


As you can see with this current, there is no obvious above the water break to be seen.  But the green dye put in the water shows a very obvious current.  Based on this photo, the things you want to look for become clearer.  On the beach itself, you see much less of a break in the waves at the location of the current than you do surrounding it, despite the wave going higher up the beach.  You can see the same process with the next breaking wave further out.  This is because the rip current undercuts and pushes back against the wave.  Note  that the water appears much calmer and less frothy in the region of the current.  This is the biggest hazard of  rip currents, as it appears that the water there is calmest, and most people associate calm waters with safety.   This falls under the caveat of being too good to be true.  If the rest of the beach is getting hit with waves, there is usually a reason that one specific part isn’t.

As mentioned before, the way to safety from a rip current is to swim parallel to the beach.   The current will be very difficult for even strong swimmers to win against, but the current is likely not that wide, as shown in this photo.  Simply swimming 15 feet to either side of that current should be sufficient to put you outside and allow you to swim back to safety.   Some currents will certainly be wider than this, but it will be far easier to get out of the current than it will to fight it.

Plunging and Surging waves

Plunging waves are the most dangerous type of breaking waves. With a lot of force, they can easily slam your body into the ocean floor. Many spinal and head injuries are caused this way.  You are likely most familiar with these types of waves from surfing where they form a tube.   The wave is created by sudden changes in depth at the beach which causes the crest to become more vertical.  The force of the wave “plunging” down on to you is the primary danger for this type of wave.

Surging waves can also be dangerous as they can easily knock both children and adults over as they rush up and back down the beach.   The danger behind these waves is the lack of a noticeable breaker.  The base of the wave moves much faster than the top of the wave, which makes the wave appear more shallow and less dangerous.  However, the speed with which the wave moves is similar to a river that floods over a road in heavy rain.   It only takes a little rushing water to create a strong force.

Shallow water

The best way to avoid  this hazard is to know your beach.   During the years I spent living on Nantasket Beach in Hull, Massachusetts, I got to know the beach by my house very well.   I knew the location of the sandbars and knew not to dive headfirst into them when they were underwater.   Not everyone was so lucky, and while I never saw anyone get seriously hurt, many a child came back crying cause water than had been over their head suddenly became water up to their ankles rife with rocks.

Tropical swells can change all that.   When the high tide at your regular beach is much higher than usual, the locations of all the hazards hasn’t changed, but the height of the water and the distance of those hazards from the edge of the water has.

If you know the beach well, you can avoid these situations, but if you’re ever at a new beach, or just aren’t sure of where the hazards are at your regular beach, always go in feet first to avoid diving headlong into the bottom.


Robert Millette