Rūta Smith file photo

Never turn your back on the ocean

 It was the summer of my 19th year, and I was out surfing at Garden City Beach. A tropical storm spawned 6-foot waves and pink tourists frolicked like a scene from Jaws. Thanks to a drill-sergeant instructor, I had just earned my ocean lifesaving certification. I was feeling pretty good. 

Paddling back out after a drubbing, I noticed a kid about 15 yards away. His head bobbed in 4 feet of water and everything looked fine. The water was rough, but others were swimming by him right in front of the lifeguard. His hands broke the surface in a dog paddle. Still, his clumsy movements brought out my instructor’s words: “Drowning people don’t look like drowning people,” he said. “Even if their eyes and nose are above water, their mouths are submerged. They can’t scream and they’re too busy struggling, or too tired to wave.” 

Suddenly, the kid went under. I sprinted over, yelling to a swimming couple: “There was a kid
— right here!” He was their son. He had been drowning, but they didn’t even know it. 

After an interminable 10 seconds scratching the foam, the kid bounced into me — face down, arms akimbo, skin purple. I yanked him up and laid him over the top of my board. He retched seawater and wailed like any kid who almost died would. 

Today, I still wonder what would have happened had I not been told what to look for. Partly because of that incident, I launched a book project a few years ago — The Ocean. The Ultimate Handbook of Nautical Knowledge — that sought the life-saving wisdom of scores of ocean experts. What follows is an abbreviated Lowcountry-centered beach safety breakdown that we hope will keep you safe. 

How to surf safely

Surfing has exploded in Charleston. For beginners, a little local advice:

Surfing has many unwritten rules. Lessen the odds of injury or confrontation with a surf lesson. Shaka Surf School, Sol Surfers, Isla Surf School, Carolina Salt and Salt Marsh Surf School are all reputable local operations. 

Big board. Get a long (8-foot or more), soft surfboard like a Costco Wavestorm or a SoftTop that won’t knock you out when it inevitably hits you in the head. You can also rent soft surfboards from several local shops including Ocean and McKevlin’s on Folly Beach. 

Go where people aren’t. You generally can’t surf at the lifeguarded beaches near piers and at our county parks when the guards are out. There’s still plenty of room. At Folly, the waves are far less crowded between the 4th Block West End and Folly Beach County Park. At Isle of Palms, the blocks between 20th and 30th north of the pier tend to be the most crowded. 

Don’t “drop-in” on a surfer who is already riding the wave

Stay out of the way. For beginners, the best way to get yelled at or punched is to “drop in” on another surfer. The most important rule is that the surfer closest to the breaking whitewater (also known as the curl) moving down the line has the right-of-way. This means you should always glance over both shoulders when paddling for a wave. If you’re paddling next to someone who’s nearest to the curl, back off. If you accidentally interfere with a surfer’s ride (known as a “drop-in,” “burn” or “snake”), do your best to get out of their way. If that’s impossible and you stuff them back in the whitewater, make sure to apologize. 

Avoid bad currents

In the Lowcountry, we generally see two types of beach currents. Longshore currents run parallel to the beach. They’re caused by tidal flows or strong winds blowing sideways up or down the beach. 

Rip currents are created either by longshore currents pushing up against piers and jetties or by wave energy. Rips are likely to be much stronger right alongside piers or jetties. In wave-spawned rips, water is pushed ashore by waves then funneled back out to sea. Look for a stream of choppy, more turbid water. 

  • If you’re pushed out in a rip, relax, flip on your back face up and float or swim to ride the current out while swimming parallel to shore. Angle for the beach when it’s safe — anywhere safe will do. Rips cannot exist everywhere. Eventually the current will release its grip and you can swim in. 
  • If you’re amidst waves, dive beneath them and swim, riding the current until outside of breakers, then rest and regroup and swim in, or float outside and wave for help.

Don’t swim alongside tidal channels

The calm-looking waters at the ends of our barrier island beaches can look inviting. But these are the spots where tidal currents can be far stronger than you can swim. Avoid them.

Prevent burned feet — and paws

Summertime sand or pavement can be over 120 F. Paws or feet can be seriously burned when ground temperature exceeds 111 F. If you reach the beach early, the sand will be much hotter when you leave. Bring flip flops.

Don’t ignore thunder

Lightning can strike miles ahead of a Lowcountry thunderstorm. Summer storms can advance at more than 50 mph, and saltwater conducts electricity well. If you hear thunder, get out of the ocean and off the beach. A car is very safe during a storm. NOTE: Because of how lightning can travel from a structure into the ground, standing under a pier or at the edge of a porch or overhang, is a bad idea. 

Beach First Aid for deep cuts 

From oysters to broken glass to surfboard fins, our beaches can be sharp. If a cut is severe or spurting, call 911. After stopping bleeding, any cut must be cleaned thoroughly. 

Stop the bleeding: Most bleeding can be controlled with direct pressure. Apply solid pressure over the length of the cut. If a wound is spurting blood at the same rate as a heartbeat, this indicates a severed artery, and steady compression is critical. You must exceed the internal pressure with external pressure. Hold clean fabric — or whatever you have, like a towel or T-shirt — while applying nonstop direct pressure for as long as it takes to stop bleeding. If pressure fails to stop the bleeding or it’s spurting badly, you must apply a tourniquet. 

Apply a tourniquet: A tourniquet cuts off blood circulation to a limb, and once applied, it MUST remain in place until the victim reaches a medical facility. The most effective is a combat application tourniquet (CAT). To improvise one, wrap a long strip of cloth at least a half inch wide (not shoe string or wire) one or more times above but not over the wound (ideally, above elbow or knee). Wrap over clothing to protect skin. Tie a half knot, place a rigid stick on the knot, then tie another knot to bind the stick. Twist the stick until bleeding stops, then immobilize the stick so it doesn’t loosen. 

Get educated

Enroll kids — even infants — in swimming lessons. For older kids, consider a Red Cross Certified Lifeguard course to learn rescues and CPR. Charleston County Parks and Recreation’s Junior Lifeguard Program is excellent and fills up quickly (chscp.co/jr-lifeguard-program).

How to deal with jellyfish and stingrays

Venomous jellyfish and tiny immature jellies, aka “sea lice,” stings are the most common Lowcountry beach injuries. Many popularized “traditional” remedies can actually worsen stings.

Images courtesy Chronicle Books; file

Avoid jellyfish 

The first rule of dealing with stings is to avoid jellyfish. Lowcountry jellyfish stings start to ramp up in July. Strong, southerly winds can also blow Portuguese man-o’-wars ashore. In late summer, we even see small box jellyfish (Chiropsalmus quadrumanus) aka sea wasps. Though not as bad as Australian boxes, they’re still terrible. Big, round cannonball jellies are everywhere, but they’re generally harmless.

Prevent stings

Stingers are triggered by skin contact.  Wearing thin fabrics dramatically
reduces risks. Think form-fitting wetsuits and Lycra clothing like rash guards and “swim yoga” pants. 

How to NOT treat stings 

There are a host of old wives’ tales about how to treat stings that are just plain wrong. Therefore:

  • Never wash off attached stingers using cool/cold water (fresh or salt), urine, alcohol, ammonia or bleach.
  • Never treat stings with meat tenderizer, shaving cream, baking soda or any other folk remedy. Some actually increase stinger discharge.
  • Never rub, towel, scrape or swipe tentacles to remove them. Any pressure can further inject poison into the skin.
  • Never apply cold packs, cold freshwater or ice.
  • Never, ever use an EpiPen, or epinephrine. A jellyfish sting is not an allergy, and epinephrine could prove fatal.
  • DO NOT rinse with cool or cold saltwater: This rolls inactive stingers across the skin so they sting again and again.

How TO treat stings

  • Remain calm and get out of the water.
  • Wash the sting site with vinegar to remove any remaining stingers (take a bottle to the beach). Typically, less than 1% discharge on initial contact. Flood the area with vinegar for at least 30 seconds to “acid-fix” the stinging cells and deactivate unfired stingers. StingNoMore was developed for U.S. combat divers and has vinegar (and other components) to fully inactivate stingers. It really works. 
  • If you don’t have vinegar or if the sting is in the eye, flood the site with tolerably hot freshwater — washing off the remaining stingers. If any tentacles won’t rinse off, soak in hot freshwater or pluck them off gently with tweezers, though this will cause more stinging. Wear gloves if possible.
  • Once stingers are removed, soak the area in tolerably hot freshwater, ideally 110 F to 115 F, or use hot packs, for 20-45 minutes to deactivate the injected venom. Hot, not scorching beach sand can also help, but only after stingers are removed or deactivated.
  • Afterward, use antihistamine and anti-inflammatory creams such as hydrocortisone to lessen inflammation.
  • With box jelly stings, victims may need assistance and CPR. Summon a lifeguard and call 911. 
  • If the victim is unconscious or has labored breathing or heart arrhythmia, begin CPR. The cardiac effects of venom diminish over time, and lives have been saved after even 40 minutes of CPR.

Treating a stingray sting

Stingrays bury themselves in the sand and can whip a venom-coated spine on their tails with lightning speed. It’s outrageously painful. Shuffle your feet through the sand to scare them off (this doesn’t always work).

  • Soak sting site in hot soapy water (114 F) for 10-15 minutes, which deactivates toxic proteins. On a hot beach, use hot (but not scorching) sand.
  • Clean the wound with soap and warm water, then irrigate with freshwater or a sterile saline solution, not seawater. 
  • Elevate the injury above the level of the heart to prevent swelling and reduce pain.
  • Apply an antibiotic ointment like Bacitracin and cover gently with a clean gauze dressing. Seek medical attention. 

Save a drowning victim 

Drowning swimmers do not flail around, screaming. They’re often so exhausted that they’re partially submerged. In fact, someone might drown right in front of you if you don’t know the signs:

  • Head low in the water, mouth at water level
  • Head tilted back with mouth open, like they’re staring at the sky
  • Eyes glassy and empty, unable to focus, or closed
  • Hair over forehead or eyes
  • Upright in the water, with no evidence of kicking
  • Hyperventilating or gasping
  • Trying to swim in a particular direction but making no headway
  • Trying to roll over on their back
  • Moving as if climbing an invisible ladder

Rescuing a drowning swimmer

Anyone who has nearly drowned needs medical treatment. Desperate for breath, panicked swimmers may climb on top of you. Bring a flotation device if possible. 

If you don’t have a flotation device:

  • Swim beneath the victim and approach from behind. Keep their back to you. Say, “I’m here to help, but you have to relax.” If the victim grabs you, dive and swim away. The victim will likely let go. If he or she doesn’t, push their arms off by the elbows and keep sinking. Catch your breath. Try again.
  • Once you are behind the victim, throw your nondominant arm over the victim’s shoulder and chest. Grab the armpit and slide the crook of your elbow under the victim’s chin to stabilize and get the head out of the water. If the victim is thrashing, grab the wrist of the free arm with your dominant arm. A hard, painful squeeze of the armpit and wrist — and a calm and reassuring voice — usually helps victims relax. 

If you have a surfboard or flotation device:

  • Place the floating object between yourself and the victim; extend it to him or her and continually offer reassurance.
  • In a wave zone, fasten the ankle or wrist leash onto the victim.
  • Unless there’s immediate danger, allow the victim to rest on the flotation device before making for shore.

Rescuing an unconscious swimmer

Drowning CPR is different from heart attack CPR. In a drowning, the person is often unconscious, not necessarily because the heart has stopped, but from lack of oxygen.

  • Give five breaths. If the victim is not breathing, and you’re in a safe spot — even in the water — get air into their lungs as soon as possible. With one hand, pinch the victim’s nostrils closed and give five long, steady breaths. Watch for the rise and fall of the chest. Five breaths could take up to a minute. Administer breaths even if you see blood or foaming at the mouth. 
  • Drag from surf. Upon reaching the beach, hold the victim from behind, placing both arms under the victim’s armpits, while one arm supports their chin and spine. Walk backward, dragging the victim away from the surf. Presume any limp victim, particularly someone who’s had a wipeout, also has a spinal-cord injury. Keep their neck in a neutral, aligned position. 
  • Lay the victim on his or her back. If the victim vomits, be sure to roll him or her on a side. This is vital to keep fluid out of the lungs. Water pouring from a victim’s mouth is most likely from the stomach, not the lungs. Never try the Heimlich maneuver or attempt to drain water from the victim’s lungs. This will actually introduce water into the lungs. 
  • Begin CPR with five rescue breaths on land. Immediately assess the victim’s pulse and breathing afterward. Then begin chest compressions. Stay at it until breathing and heartbeat return or rescuers arrive. 
  • Keep the victim warm and dry. If the victim is vomiting, making gurgling sounds or exhibiting blue lips and fingers, he or she probably inhaled seawater and may experience “secondary drowning.” Victims exhibit minimal symptoms at first — a cough and a little foam — but can suffocate as their lungs slowly fill with fluid. 

For more information on how to enjoy a beach safely, consider The Ocean: The Ultimate Handbook of Nautical Knowledge: chscp.co/the-ocean.


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