Chesapeake Quarterly
Riding the Rip...and Living to Tell a Tale
Pat Norris relaxes with her boyfriend - by Michael W. Fincham
A strong swimmer, Pat Norris relaxes with her boyfriend next to the ocean where she nearly drowned. Credit: Michael W. Fincham

THIS WAS BEFORE THE WAR that would change everything. When Pat Norris went to the beach with her boyfriend, Bill Fincham, both were in their mid-twenties. She was tall, somewhat gawky (at least in the photos) with a big smile and a crown of curly light brown hair that flared out like a halo around her head in a style that was popular in the 1930s. He was slim, well dressed, with dark hair slicked back, a mustache, a sporty-looking car. A dude of sorts. The beach was Nags Head, North Carolina, on the Outer Banks.

That morning Pat dove through the breakers and headed out with confidence. Swimming was one of her great loves and she was good at it. Back in Washington, DC, she would take the streetcar downtown to the old YWCA where several times a week she swam laps.

Bill hung back on the front porch of the hotel that morning, perhaps out of laziness, perhaps out of hesitation. He was probably not a strong swimmer — no one in later years could remember him swimming — and possibly did not want to embarrass himself in front of this Catholic girl who had finally come away with him for a trip. That's my guess. That hesitation helped save his girlfriend's life.

Norris was a strong swimmer, but she was no match for the rip current that caught her up and carried her seaward.

Not much was known in those days about rip currents like the ones that broke out that morning along the Outer Banks — except this one was much stronger than a strong swimmer.

Struggling against the surge, feeling her exhaustion growing and her panic rising, Norris hesitated, then rolled over and began floating on her back. She also waved and yelled for help, but nobody on the beach could see her over the incoming swells, nobody could hear her over the sound of breaking surf.

It was her boyfriend up on the hotel porch, probably smoking a cigarette, who spotted her floating and waving in the distance. Details of the rescue are sketchy, but it involved four men recruited from the beach and possibly a small boat. By the time they reached her she had been floating for 45 minutes.

The story has passed down several generations now, and it always raises odd questions when I think of it. The boyfriend got his girlfriend to marry him and Pat Norris became Pat Fincham. Together they raised seven children, and one of them is the author of these articles on rip currents. What did she think about, I wonder, floating on her back, staring at the heavens? Was she afraid to die? Did her faith keep her calm? Did she think about children? What if she had drowned that morning? Now that she's gone, these are questions without answers. Yet every time I hear the story I am caught up in such musings like a weak swimmer swept away in a strong rip.

I also think about the tough choices my mother made when she realized she was caught in a rip current. For the last decade the conventional wisdom has said you should not swim towards the beach: you'll exhaust yourself against the current, your stroke will grow weaker, you'll probably panic, you could easily drown. The standard advice: swim parallel to the shore until you move out of the rip channel and then head for shore. If you can't get out of the rip current — if it is too wide, if you are too weak — then try floating and waiting.

My mother, though a strong swimmer, took the second option, floating and waiting calmly, and by following her instincts she may have unknowingly avoided other problems. Rip currents, depending on the setup of the local sandbars, can sometimes flow at odd angles away from the beach. A rip can angle southwards, for example, and by swimming southwards you stay in the current longer. Along some beaches, rip currents can curl back towards the shore. Swim or float? Even with what we know now, it's still a tricky choice.

We do know a lot more about waves and rip currents these days, thanks to a tradition of sea swell and wave forecasting that began during World War II in preparation for terrible, bloody beach invasions in places like French North Africa, Iwo Jima, and Normandy. Rip current research has not been around as long as wave research, but it is in high gear now, with projects in progress at more than a dozen American universities, much of it funded by Sea Grant programs around the country. One focus of that research is prediction, creating rip current forecasts as accurate as the weather forecasts we listen to before we leave for the beach. Forecasts that could save lives.

That research tradition has done much to educate us about how to look at a beach full of breaking waves, but our best protection still remains the lifeguards sitting on their towers, trained to read the waves for signs that rip currents are running strong enough to carry swimmers out to sea.

I thought again of this family story when I interviewed Butch Arbin, the captain of the Ocean City Beach Patrol. He's a 37-year veteran of the Beach Patrol, still passionate about his summer job, and he was telling me why so many lifeguards come back to the job year after year. When you save somebody's life, he explains, you touch a whole family. You find out how that somebody is a daughter, a sister, a niece, an aunt, a wife, a mother, a grandmother. "So when you save somebody, you've impacted a whole lot of people," he says. "Saving a life is significant." Like tossing a pebble into a pond where the ripples go on forever.

— Michael W. Fincham

August 2009
vol. 8, no. 3
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