East vs. south facing beaches: Which are more dangerous for swimmers?

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CAPE FEAR REGION (WWAY) — With Memorial Day weekend just days away it’s important to remind locals and visitors about the dangers of rip currents. But with both east and south facing beaches in our area, which are more dangerous for swimming?

Experts say rip currents are just as likely to occur at south facing beaches as they are east facing beaches.

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It all depends on weather patterns.

UNCW Assistant Oceanography Professor Joseph Long says rip currents mainly happen in gaps between sand bars. When large waves come in, they get funneled out in that gap.

”As the wave conditions change, as the wave directions, where they’re coming from change, that’s going to change which beaches we see rip currents on,” Long said. ”We can see changes from day to day, and week to week. Certainly during the season when we start to see a lot of tropical storms, and that may be bringing high waves down from the south, as the storms sort of propagate over, we might see more along the south facing beaches.”



Steve Pfaff with Wilmington’s branch of the National Weather Service says rip currents happen when a large amount of wave energy is coming into our shoreline, creating an imbalance.

”I think it all starts with awareness before you head to the beach, check the various media outlets, the weather service forecast, the beach forecast that we prepare,” Pfaff said. “There’s is a rip current outlook in it in addition to other hazards.”

Pfaff says if you see large breaking waves in the surf there is almost always rip currents associated with them.

“If we have a large storm several hundred miles offshore, the swells from that storm are going to move towards the coastline,” Pfaff said. “If it’s an easterly swell, one coming from the east to the west, then our east-facing beaches such as Wrightsville Beach, Carolina Beach, are going to bear the brunt of those waves and have a better chance of having rip currents.”

He says the same is true for south facing beaches in Brunswick County like Oak Island and Holden Beach if the wave energy is coming from the south.

The biggest difference between the two is that our south facing beaches do not have lifeguards.

Pfaff says if you see someone get caught in a rip, don’t try to be a hero. Get a lifeguard or call 911.

”One out of every five rip current drownings we have is a result of the Good Samaritan trying to make a rescue,” Pfaff said.

Watch WWAY for daily rip current forecasts or download the WWAY StormTrack3 Weather App.