Encinitas lifeguards honored for participation in rip current study


Twice a day, every day for the past seven years, an Encinitas lifeguard has sat down at a computer and entered data about surf and tidal conditions at Moonlight Beach.

That information has helped National Weather Service forecasters improve the accuracy of their surf forecasts, and also assisted scientists with the agency’s headquarters as they develop a computer model to predict rip currents.

In recognition of that work, officials with the federal agency attended a recent Encinitas City Council meeting, where they honored the city and its lifeguards for their contributions.

The observations provided by the lifeguards include height of surf, wave direction, water level, tidal condition, existence of rip currents, beach attendance and number of rescues, said Noel Isla, a forecaster with the weather service’s San Diego office, and rip current project leader.

“The observations have contributed to increased knowledge and understanding of when and how rips will form,” Isla said. The information is “playing a key role in the development and evaluation of a rip current forecast model.”

In tandem with the work of scientists at the NWS headquarters, local forecasters are using the data to fine-tune their own daily surf forecasts, which include a risk assessment for rip currents.

Encinitas was the first city to participate in the rip current study, said Isla, and it was chosen in part because of existing detailed topographical charts of Moonlight Beach, compiled by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

Seven Southern California beaches are now sending in observations for the study, including Mission Beach and Oceanside Beach in San Diego County, and Huntington, Laguna, Seal and San Clemente beaches in Orange County.

Capt. Larry Giles, who heads the Encinitas lifeguard service, praised his staff for their dedication to providing the information day in, day out over the past seven years.

“They did a really good job. I’m glad we stuck with that,” he said. “It really validated some of the things we already knew,” such as that rip currents often form when swells are in the two- to four-foot range.

Rip currents are essentially a channel of water that flows away from shore. Inexperienced swimmers can find themselves caught in a rip current and swept several hundred yards out to sea. Swimmers who try to fight against the current and swim back to shore can exhaust themselves and even drown.

Giles said there are different types of rip currents, some of which are related to features of the ocean floor, such as a submerged reef wall or a sand bar. Others are related to swell, wind and tides, and can develop without warning.

In 2013, Giles said, lifeguards carried out 1,010 rescues, some 90 percent of them related to rip currents. Some 2.5 million people visited Encinitas beaches during the year.

The danger posed by rip currents was demonstrated in May when two people, both non-swimmers, drowned while out in the water just a block north of Moonlight Beach. One was an adult and one a teenager, Giles said.

“That tells you how quickly a rip current can affect someone who isn’t ocean-savvy or doesn’t know how to swim,” Giles said.

The classic visual signs of a rip current are brownish, sandy water and a choppy surface, more like a river than ocean waves, said Giles. Lifeguards tell swimmers not to fight the current, but to swim out of the rip current, parallel to the shore, before turning toward the beach.

But the best way to stay safe is to swim within sight of lifeguards, and to avoid any situation where signs of a rip current are in evidence. “‘If in doubt, don’t go out’ — that’s a big saying in the lifeguard world,” Giles said.

Isla, of the National Weather Service, echoed Giles’ advice.

“Always swim near a lifeguard. That’s it, that’s why they’re there, to protect the beach-goers. That’s the best advice I can give and the best advice a lifeguard can give,” he said.

Encinitas lifeguards will continue providing the data as long as the weather service wants it, said Giles. Isla said the observations remain useful to NWS forecasters and scientists.

“We always want the information. We’re basically data geeks anyway,” Isla said.