Gusting onshore winds and a steady northeast swell are creating a treacherous situation on Palm Beach County’s beaches as carefree spring breakers and deadly rip currents collide.
Meteorologists with the National Weather Service in Miami began alerting to a high risk of rip currents on Sunday as waves from a bombing low-pressure system off the coast of New England started showing up in South Florida.
The high risk is expected to last at least through Saturday when winds are forecast to gust to up to 20 mph.
At the same time, colleges and universities are beginning their spring breaks — annual sojourns that often lead to the beach.
“The biggest story this week will be the high risk of rip currents along the Atlantic coast,” wrote Miami forecasters in a morning discussion. “With several visitors in the area with spring break upon us, it is very important to get the message out regarding the dangers of rip currents.”
Over the weekend, 26,300 people spent time at Palm Beach County-run beaches from Singer Island to Boca Raton. Those attendance numbers don’t include popular beaches such as Lake Worth, Delray Beach, Boynton Beach and Lantana, all of which had overflowing parking lots on Sunday.
According to the Storm Events Database kept by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, 270 people died in Florida from rip currents between Jan. 1, 2000, and November.
Charlie Paxton, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Tampa who has studied rip currents throughout the U.S., said Florida has the highest number of rip current-related deaths because it is a vacation hot spot, with a lengthy coastline and warm waters.
Tourists can overestimate their swimming ability and underestimate the power of the ocean.
“One of the biggest problems is people treat the ocean as they would a swimming pool, especially when the waves are smaller,” Paxton said. “They think it’s gentle and they get pulled out a little bit and they panic.”
Stories from the storm events database include weather reports similar to the pattern Florida is under now — a high-pressure system whose clockwise winds pump haphazard waves ashore.
After six days of onshore flow last March, 21-year-old British national Dario Williams went for a swim at MacArthur Beach State Park and was swept out to sea. His body was found a day later. His death was attributed to a rip current.
“If you see someone struggling, throw them a flotation device,” said Paxton, noting that would-be rescuers can also end up in trouble. “If you are the only thing floating that they can grab onto, bad things can happen.”
Over the weekend, about 50,300 people spent time at Palm Beach County-run beaches from Jupiter to Boca Raton. Those attendance numbers don’t include popular beaches such as Lake Worth, Delray Beach, Boynton Beach and Lantana, all of which had overflowing parking lots on Sunday.
Despite overflowing beach crowds this past weekend, lifeguards reported no rescues at busy Delray Beach, Lake Worth beach or south county beaches overseen by Palm Beach County Parks and Recreation. Two people were rescued from rip currents at Jupiter Beach, said Palm Beach County Parks and Recreation spokesman Chris Korbelak.
“Our lifeguards were very proactive and kept people from the rip currents,” said Delray Beach Fire Rescue Capt. Kevin Saxton.
Rip currents are formed when water pushed onto the beach by crashing waves flows back into the ocean, cutting channels into the sandy bottom that speeds quickly back to sea. Rip currents often form near jetties and piers, which are ready-made troughs, but can also appear as glassy runways between waves.
“Those places are often mistaken as a safer place to be because the waves aren’t breaking as much,” Paxton said.
On Tuesday, Rayshaune Collins, a 19-year-old on spring break from Florida Gulf Coast University, was planning to swim at Lake Worth beach. After a previous experience caught in a rip current on a beach where there was no lifeguard, Collins said he would stay near the guards and close to shore.
“It was a traumatizing experience,” Collins said about being stuck in a rip. “I was out there for an hour.”