Stay Safe in the Surf Zone and on the Bay

Beachgoers on Rehoboth Beach. RON MACARTHUR / CAPE GAZETTE PHOTO

If you’ve been reading our blog for a while you know I tend to write about all of the reasons to celebrate Delaware. This week isn’t exactly an exception since I’m spotlighting our amazing beaches, but with some simple advice on how to stay safe at both the bay and the ocean.

Watch for surprising dangers in Delaware Bay

I’ll start by pointing out that the places most people think are the safest – the beaches along the Delaware Bay – can actually be very hazardous. While the shallow waters can help anxious parents of young children feel more relaxed, most of the swimming area is atop sandbars that can shift by the hour. As a result you might wade out 20 feet to water that only comes up to your waist at one part of the day while becoming completely submerged at the same spot later on. 

While that certainly means you need to watch your kids and grandkids carefully, the even bigger danger comes when people dive into the water without realizing how shallow it is. 

I can’t stress this enough. When you take your kids or grandkids to the beach, make sure they know that diving – even on a racing style slant – is an absolute NO. Don’t do it when you’re heading into the water from the beach . . . or after you’ve been out on one of those floating mats. In most cases there’s just no way to know if you’re diving into water that’s 10 feet deep or 2 feet deep. So please don’t do it. 

“Normal” surf conditions can actually be the most dangerous

There are also more obvious threats when you head to Rehoboth, Dewey and Bethany, which usually have much bigger surf.

“I’ve seen it hundreds of times — people getting clobbered by a wave,” says Kent Buckson, former head of the Rehoboth Beach Patrol. “It happens a lot to people who wade out to waist-deep level. They see a giant wave coming and their automatic reaction is to turn and try to run. But you can’t outrun a wave, especially when you’re halfway underwater and running up a slope. It’ll catch you from behind and propel you into the sand.” 

Dr. Paul Cowan, an emergency specialist at Beebe Healthcare, seconds that warning, and adds: “The energy from a three- or four-foot wave is similar to the energy from getting hit by a small compact car moving at 20 or 30 miles an hour.”

Intrigued by the problem, Dr. Cowan and his trauma registrar, Michelle Arford-Granholm worked with Jack Puleo and Matt Doelp from the University of Delaware on a research project to learn more about injuries in the “surf zone” where the waves tend to break.

According to the study, about 50 percent of the injuries recorded occurred to people who were simply wading in a few feet of water. 

Turning your back on the ocean is apparently the riskiest thing one can do. Data from 2015 to 2017 shows that 72 percent of wading injuries happened when people were facing the shore. 

Swim within sight of lifeguards, and check the daily beach forecast. 

“Lifeguards are aware of the dangers of the surf zone because they have the training and experience and are out there every day,” Buckson says. “We use flags to post conditions throughout the day. Green means you don’t have a dangerous shore break. You’ve got gentle surf and small waves so you’re less susceptible to rip currents and surf-zone injuries. Yellow means there’s more moderate danger. Red is for the most dangerous conditions.” 

On those red-flag days, Buckson says, the lifeguards strongly advise people not to enter the water.

Don’t dive at the ocean either. 

As the waves rise and fall, it’s very difficult to determine how deep the water is. Heading into the water feet first is the smart way to go. 

When a big wave is coming, duck and cover. 

Trying to outrun a large wave is one way to get injured, Buckson says, but standing your ground and bracing yourself can be just as dangerous because your body will tighten up and probably still get knocked down. “You’re better off turning into the wave and going under it,” Buckson says, so that it passes over you. 

Don’t ever turn your back on the waves. 

The surf-zone study found most people had their backs to the ocean when they were swept off their feet and injured. As Cowan says, “You wouldn’t close your eyes and walk across several lanes of traffic on Route 1 with cars roaring by at 50 miles an hour.” 

That’s the analogy he wants beachgoers to keep in mind as they’re working their way through the surf zone. “Keeping an eye on the waves, and entering and exiting the water at an angle will help you see the dangers in front of you and behind you as well.”

“The message is not that it’s unsafe,” he says. “It’s that there is a risk there, and you have to be safe.”

About Christine Davis

Christine grew up in northeastern PA and served in the United States Air Force for 8+ years. She worked in the civil engineering career field and traveled to various bases throughout the world. After leaving the Air Force, she moved to Rehoboth Beach and finished her degree in Business. She became a REALTOR in 2003 and aims to make the buying or selling process as smooth and fun as possible while educating clients. Christine now lives above their downtown Lewes office with her husband and fellow REALTOR, Bill Davis, and enjoys owning the brokerage and assisting the agents and meeting all the new clients moving to the area. Christine and Bill's philosophy is to be #bettereveryday. Life is short, make it count!

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