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August 14, 2017

Experts: Lack of swimming skills, not rip currents, causing most New Jersey drownings

Rip currents are no worse than in past years, and total rescues are down this year, says a lifeguard captain at the Jersey Shore

“Stupidity and inexperience,” not rip currents, are the primary factors in most New Jersey drownings, according to experts.

There have been at least 20 drownings in New Jersey this year. But despite a number of news accounts blaming rip currents for many of the deaths, the real cause is often something more sinister: a lack of common sense.

More often than not, the victims are non-swimmers and poor swimmers who literally get in over their heads, experts say.

"Overwhelmingly, drownings happen on unguarded beaches, after dark or when swimming alone,” said Jim Eberwine, a retired National Weather Service meteorologist with expertise in coastal weather and tides, and drownings.

Only about 35 percent of Americans know how to swim, and only 2 percent to 7 percent of Americans are good swimmers, according to aquatics expert Alison Osinski of Aquatic Consulting Services.

While with the weather service, Eberwine spent 18 months examining tide flows and currents, visiting the coast, consulting with academics and interviewing lifeguards. He used that knowledge to create the rip current forecasting formula used by the weather agency's Mount Holly office.

Rip currents are narrow channels of water moving rapidly away from the surf zone near the beach, funneling water – and sometimes swimmers – back out beyond the wave sets and toward the open water of the ocean.

Rip currents do not happen across a wide swath of the beach, but in chutes that run perpendicular to the beach. Experienced lifeguards can pick out the rapid currents out by watching the movement of the surf and move swimmers away from them.

The head of the South Jersey Lifeguard Chiefs Association scoffs at the notion that rip currents are any more prevalent this season, contradicting numerous news accounts.

"Our total rescues are lower this year than past years. I would argue that rips are not any worse than past years," said Bill Handley, who supervises lifeguards in Strathmere, Upper Township, and represents patrols on beaches from Brigantine to Cape May.

While Eberwine acknowledged rip currents are a hazard, especially for people not familiar with them, the biggest factor in drownings is people who cannot swim – or cannot swim well.


Of the 22 drownings in New Jersey so far this year, nine victims were female, 13 male. Nationally, males account for 80 percent of drownings, but historically just 60 percent of the victims in Jersey are male, according to the Centers for Disease Control.

Ten people die every day from unintentional drowning in the United States, making it the fifth-leading cause of unintentional injury death, according to the CDC. Children ages 1 to 4 have the highest drowning rates, the government agency said. Minorities, especially African Americans, are more prone to drowning, based on federal data.

"An inexperienced swimmer is one big wave or strong current from fatal danger." – Bill Handley, head of the South Jersey Lifeguard Chiefs Association

The most common scenarios for drownings nationally, according to the CDC, are: "children in pools, teens in unguarded natural water settings, alcohol or drug use contributing to drowning, and the tragedy of multiple drowning when potential rescuers become victims."

All those scenarios have contributed to the death toll in New Jersey this season. The CDC does not account for rip currents.

But just three drownings in the state this year occurred at locations where lifeguards were on duty. In most of the cases, victims appear to have had little or no swimming ability.

"Strong swimming skills would make drowning near impossible in controlled bodies of water such as pools," said Handley.

"An inexperienced swimmer is one big wave or strong current from fatal danger," he added. "In the open water environment, factors such as currents and waves can throw unexpected challenges to the inexperienced swimmer."


Injury can also lead to drownings, a circumstance seen in three deaths this summer.

A kite surfer in open water off Sandy Hook, beyond lifeguards, lost consciousness and drowned, his body found days later.

Two men died on protected beaches during unrelated drownings in Sea Isle City. In both incidents, the victims first broke their necks, precipitating their drownings, according to a lifeguard spokesman. Both were rescued swiftly by guards – one even airlifted to a trauma center – but died.

Of the 10 surf drownings this season at the Jersey Shore, none happened during high-risk rip tide forecasts, according to retired meteorologist Jim Eberwine.

A teen-aged girl is the only other person who has drowned this summer without an accident first at a protected New Jersey beach – Gateway National Recreation Area’s Beach E in Sandy Hook. The girl, whose name was never released, apparently dropped into deep water from a shallow sandbar, according to a spokeswoman. Lifeguards responded, and pulled her from the water, but she later succumbed to her injuries.

Eight of New Jersey's drownings happened in freshwater.

Three pool deaths, two involving small children, were in water without supervision. Circumstance in the third pool drowning involving an adult man are unclear.

Eberwine examined forecasting data – time, dates and locations – for the drowning deaths in the New Jersey surf this season.

His conclusion: the ocean incidents did not happen during high-risk rip current forecastsHe found forecasts for rip currents were no more than moderate – meaning currents were possible – on just five of those occasions. Forecasts were low – meaning they were unlikely to form – during six of the coastal drownings.

Eberwine, who has served in emergency management for a coastal town since his retirement and was a forecaster for Marine One, the presidential helicopter, dismisses those news accounts blaming rip currents for pushing up drowning deaths.

"Not once did I see it mentioned, 'it was the person's fault,' " he noted. "These deaths are very unfortunate, but don't need to happen....A very small number of drownings are the result of rip currents on guarded beaches.”


Dr. Adam Shiroff, an associate professor of surgery at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania, surfer and Ironman competitor, said drownings occur because even relatively short oxygen deprivations can have "profound effects" on a person's organs, especially the brain. That means death is possible even when breathing and pulse are restored via a "heroic save."

While he considers himself an excellent swimmer, he said he has "tremendous respect" for the dangers of being in the water.

Getting someone quickly to a high-level trauma center – not just a typical hospital – is critical in near-drownings because so many body systems need to be supported, said Shiroff. 

The primary means of support is called extracorporeal membrane oxygenation, a pump that circulates blood to an artificial lung – adding oxygen, removing carbon dioxide – explained the doctor, who has worked at Level I and Level II trauma centers. Penn operates a Level I trauma center at its Penn Presbyterian Hospital.

Making it through the first 24 to 48 hours is the key to surviving a water accident, the doctor added.

Drowning is a particularly lethal issue for small children, said Shiroff, because reviving them is more difficult than adults. He said prevention, effective barriers and close supervision – not rescue – are the keys to minimizing their deaths.


These are the drownings reported in New Jersey to date in 2017, in chronological order:

May 19: Arthur Clarke, 64, an avid long-distance swimmer and former lifeguard, died in Lake Hopatcong, where he lived, during a solo night swim. He is the lone outlier in terms of the swimming ability of drowning victims.

June 11: Memfy Deleon, 20, of Paterson died after swimming at Terrace Pond in Wawayanda State Park Paterson in West Milford, where swimming is prohibited.

June 11: Lenyn Mercedes-Payamps, 23, of Pleasantville, died after swimming in an unguarded quarry near Mays Landing in South Jersey. It is posted prohibiting swimming.

June 15: Emily Gonzalez-Perez, 12, of Belmar, and her cousin, Mitzi Hernandez, 13, drowned off the unguarded Ninth Avenue beach in Belmar. Double drownings are fairly frequent. This was the first of three in New Jersey this season.

June 15: Ramon Quinn, 15, of Pleasantville, and Kaliyah Hand, 16, died while on the beach in Atlantic City after lifeguard hours.

June 21: Marty Barchue, 17, of Hamilton, Mercer County, drowned in Roebling Park’s Rowan Lake in the township. Swimming is not permitted there, it is not guarded and a friend said Barcuhe did not know how to swim.

June 25Ismail Ahmed Abdelmonem, 24, drowned in North Wildwood after lifeguards had left the beach for the day.

July 4: Marvin Lemus Nola, 24, of Philadelphia, died in the Delaware River near Washington Crossing.

July 6Kaylin Pahulick, 4, of Levittown, Bucks County, died at a lake in Ocean View, Cape May County. The lake is unguarded.

July 8: A six-year-old Pennsylvania girl who was never identified died at a pool at the Nantucket Inn & Suites motel on Ocean Avenue in Wildwood. The pool did not have a guard.

July 16: A two-year-old first thought to be missing was found drowned in a residential pool in Galloway Township, Atlantic County.

July 16: At Sandy Hook Gateway National Recreation Area, a 12-year-old girl drowned after stepping into deep water from a shallow sandbar.

July 19: Two Bridgeton, Cumberland County brothers – Otoniel Bautista-Vargas, 29, and Saul Bautista-Vargas, 27, – were fishing and drowned after swimming in a lake where it is prohibited.

July 21:  An unnamed Middletown man drowned while swimming in a backyard pool. Police released no additional information. 

July 30: A Point Pleasant boardwalk worker from Slovenia drowned after going swimming in the surf at around 2:30 a.m. Zuzana Oravcova and a man she was with struggled in the surf; he managed to get back in. Her body was found several days later.

July 31Brian Zwaan, 58, of Berwyn, Chester County, was body surfing at Sea Isle City's 86th Street beach when he broke his neck before drowning.

August 1Jeffrey Wilkens, 31, of Illinois, died near Steel Pier, in Atlantic City. He was swimming after hours on an unguarded beach.

August 2A 74-year-old man was knocked over by a large wave at the 59th Street beach in Sea Isle City and injured before drowning.

August 4: A kite surfer, Sinisa Bjelajac, 44, of Hoboken, suffered an injury off Sandy Hook, losing consciousness, then drowning.

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