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The waves build, barrel in and crash. It is an endless cycle. One after another waves give beach lovers true pleasure. It is the relentless rhythm of the in and out of the water, accompanied by the sound of the waves tumbling in that lulls the wave watcher into a opiate like pleasure, truly a natural high. The sight and sound is addictive.
The beauty of the ocean, is in its seemingly infinite quality and its raw power. Swimmers frolick in the surf. Surfers on boards and body alike allow the waves to work their magic, jetting them forward as they ride the wave. Strong swimmers challenge the waves and venture beyond, where the water is calmer. They float out where it is safe, beyond the crashing waves and enjoy a pleasure lost to many of us, simply because we aren’t good enough swimmers. Others enticed by the beauty of the water are seduced by thought of a cool refreshing dip, they go out and then… they don’t come back. These swimmers are swept away by a silent deadly rip current, made more perilous because of the grip of fear which overcome swimmers who find themselves caught in its ghastly pull. It is a lethal fear making a swimmer panic and quickly fatigue so that their last breath is a liquid breath.
On Friday, July 18, 2008 I was at Beach 125 in Rockaway. It was a perfect day: sunny, warm, and beautiful waves. For me it had been a day of watching the water go in and out all day. It was a day of sheer relaxation the way a perfect beach day should be. At 3:00 PM, everything changed. Two lifeguard chairs down a swimmer was pulled out to sea. With a friend playing in the surf, the victim got caught up in a rip current. Like many before her, panic set in and quickly exhaustion and then she was gone, out of sight. Helicopters flew overhead in tight circles, eventually coming dangerously close to the water, searching and one finally landing right on the sand. It was dramatic the way a movie is but unfortunately this scene was real. Rescue boats appeared and the lifeguards formed a line, perpendicular to the shore. They dove with regimented precision, three strokes underwater then coming up, stepping back one step and then repeating the whole diving process again until they reached the end of the bay, in what would be a futile attempt to locate the lost swimmer. I went back to the beach over the next three days for more beach pleasure, but my pleasure was uncomfortably marred by the sight of rescue boats searching throughout the day.
Ocean waves change daily and through the course of a day. That is part of the joy of being at the beach to witness the dynamism of the ocean waters. The tide goes in and out and waves respond to distance forces far at sea. In the case of that fateful day on Friday, July 18th, the water of the Rockaway Beaches were being influenced by Hurricane Bertha occurring in the southern Atlantic. Bertha stretched her arms all the way north to the waters of New York City. Normally the changes in the ocean on a typical day are subtle, but with the encouragement of hurricane winds, nasty currents appeared, bringing with it a much bigger wave cycle, occurring at shorter intervals. Waves were bigger, faster, stronger and unpredictable. The crash of water was brutal if you did not properly anticipate the power of the wave. The Lifeguards were busy that day, pulling people in from the ocean who could not come back in on their own.
That day and for many days after I thought about the frightening power of the ocean. I thought about what makes the draw of the ocean so irresistible for people, like me who can go daily and for others who feel they have to go in the water just to experience the rush. Part of the appeal is the dangerous power the ocean has. It is the thrill and danger that make us beach lovers come back for more. The possibility of thought is endless at the beach. And sadly like the many before and the many who will follow, whose diminished foresight will draw them into the water into deadly circumstances, where they will horribly discover in an instant their capabilities are no match for the beautiful and seemingly endless ocean.
Subsequent to writing this post, there have been more deaths at the beaches due to rip currents. This has been an unusual beach season because of the occurrance of so many drownings in such a short period of time.
After my experience on the 18th of July, I searched the New York Times database online. There I found many articles about rip currents and all were fascinating. The New York Times Database in full text can be accessed at any of the branches of NYPL and partial full text can be accessed at home with a New York Public Library card. The New York Times website also offers partial access to full text articles. I also looked in the database MasterFILE(EBSCO) for information on this topic. This database can accessed in full text at home as well at any branch.
Article about swimmer who was swept out to sea Friday July 18, 2008 which inspired this posting
New York Times article about Rip Currents
An article about people who were swept out to sea
Tragic story of man swept out to sea while fishing
Harrowing story of man swept out to sea off a pier at the Rockaway Beach: March 22, 1915
An article by Hugh Powell about Rip Currents in the periodical New Scientist