Fort Fisher and its lifeguards making headway against riptides

Fort Fisher State Recreation Area is known for pristine beaches and great fishing. Unfortunately, its beach and those nearby are also

Pristine beaches at Fort Fisher State Recreation Area beckon many swimmers.
Pristine beaches at Fort Fisher State Recreation Area beckon many swimmers.

getting a reputation for relentless riptides under certain weather conditions. The riptides can sweep even strong swimmers away from the beach at surprising velocity. During this year’s swimming season, which officially ends on Monday, the five-person lifeguard crew logged more than 50 rescues, snatching swimmers from dangerous currents.

The rescue of swimmers at Fort Fisher has been so recurrent that one lifeguard was captured on videotape twice performing rescues – and incredibly by the same TV news crew visiting the park on different days for unrelated stories. (One of those rescues can be viewed here.) Fort Fisher is among the busiest of the 41 state park units in North Carolina open to the public, with more than three-quarter million visitors each year. In hot weather, swimming is the principal activity at the park, which maintains a 200-yard designated swim area at one end of a four-mile beachfront. On average weekdays, the park welcomes several hundred swimmers; on weekend days and holidays, more than 500 swimmers may appear.

The bravery of the lifeguard crew – Chief Graham Taylor, Caleb Epler, Michael Kanupp, Hunter Kunz and Madison Utz – is unquestioned (along with that of our lifeguards at all state park swim areas). But, keeping so many Fort Fisher swimmers safe required an all-out effort by the entire park staff. Realizing there was a real safety issue with riptides, the lifeguards and park staff brainstormed and came up with a broad plan of action. Just a short list of the changes includes: building a higher lifeguard tower to get an unobstructed view of the swim area; posting riptide information throughout the visitor area along with a flag warning system; personally alerting swimmers in the evenings when lifeguards go off duty; constant patrols by foot and all-terrain vehicles on very busy days; and, a ban on using cell phones by lifeguards except for 911 calls.

No program can completely remove the risk presented by riptides. Dangerous riptides can suddenly appear as daily tides and sea conditions change and the sand topography beneath the water changes with them. And, they’re very difficult to predict even for an experienced eye. Swimmers finding themselves caught in a riptide should remember to swim parallel to the shore to get out of its grip and to summon help without hesitation. Enjoy, but be careful out there.

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