Invisible dangers: Inlet currents can kill people caught off guard
Nearly 50 people drowned in the wide open Atlantic Ocean off Palm Beach County in a five-year-period preceding 2015, but its seemingly tamer cousin, the Intracoastal waterway, dealt out its fair share of death also.
Lifeguards say swimmers underestimate the forces at work in South Florida’s inlets, tributaries and river mouths, leaving them vulnerable to invisible powers controlled by the very heavens themselves.
Tidal currents, ruled by the gravitational pulls of the sun and moon, can turn a docile snorkeling spot into a freeway of water trucking at more than 4 mph in as little as a half hour.
“It appears so placid, like it’s a water park, but a water park has controls,” said Rick Welch, a captain with Palm Beach County Ocean Rescue’s north district. “Most people’s instinct is to turn and try to fight the current back to shallower water, but you can’t swim upstream.”
A 15-year-old boy died on the evening of Aug. 7 when he failed to surface while swimming at DuBois Park. Edwin Castanon was pulled out of the water after more than an hour struggling.
“It’s just a reminder that this inlet is — it’s a beautiful inlet. It’s just a very dangerous place at times,” Jupiter Police Chief Frank Kitzerow said.
According to the Drowning Prevention Coalition of Palm Beach County, 18 people drowned in the Intracoastal between 2009 and 2015, with 34 lives lost in canals and 2 in lagoons.
Another five Intracoastal drownings have occurred this year, but Anna Stewart, manager of drowning prevention for the Drowning Prevention Coalition of Palm Beach County, said the records don’t always tell the whole story.
If someone is found in the ocean after drowning in the Intracoastal, it will be marked as an ocean death.
“In terms of accuracy of recording, there is a lot of gray area,” Stewart said. “People need to know if you’re swimming near an inlet, it’s a different story. Currents can be difficult to observe at ground level by the naked eye.”
The width, shape, flow area and obstacles, such as islands, channels and sand buildup impact the amount of power brought by the four-daily tidal flows — two incoming, two outgoing.
Manhar Dhanek, a physical oceanographer and director of Florida Atlantic University’s Sea Tech Institute for Ocean Engineering, noted that the more than 800-foot wide Lake Worth Inlet likely has less tidal pull than the Jupiter Inlet at half its size.
Smaller inlets, such as the Boynton Beach Inlet, which is about 190 feet across, and the Boca Raton Inlet, which is about 210 feet across, can produce even stronger tidal currents as the water is forced through a smaller opening.
“Once you get inside the Intracoastal waterway you get this hydraulic current which becomes quite strong,” said Manhar Dhanek, a physical oceanographer and director of Florida Atlantic University’s Sea Tech Institute for Ocean Engineering. “If it’s flowing into the inlet, or outward, you will get into a situation where you cannot fight against it.”
Dhanek reviewed NOAA records for Aug. 7 when Castanon drowned after swimming with friends at Dubois Park along the Loxahatchee River west of the Jupiter Inlet. Dhanek estimated the outgoing tide that afternoon was running at 3.2 mph
“That would be a very strong current,” he said.
At family-friendly Peanut Island, 17-year-old Kenrud Belony drowned in 2013 when he strayed from a guarded swimming area and was swept away by an outgoing tide.
In West Palm Beach, two people drowned in 2007 at Osprey Park on the west side of the Intracoastal waterway where a strong tidal current and steep drop off into the channel belie the serene setting.
“If we are talking about Michael Phelps, he could swim against a current and make headway, but for the average swimmer, they certainly couldn’t sustain it for very long,” said Ned Smith, an affiliate professor at Florida Atlantic University’s Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute. “The real risk is getting caught in an ebb tide and being carried into the ocean.”
Florida’s tidal changes are mere sips and dribbles compared to others around the world.
The Qiantang River in China has a tidal bore that can reach 30 feet in height and travel at 25 miles per hour. In Alaska’s Cook Inlet, surfers have ridden on an incoming tide that can reach 7-feet high and reach speeds of 12 mph. The Bay of Fundy in Canada may not have a vicious surge, but it has a tidal range of as much as 50 feet between low and high tide.
Still, the Boynton Beach Inlet is infamous for its tricky currents for boaters, and swimmers aren’t immune to the forces acting within the inlet and on its periphery.
Last year, two people drowned while swimming near the inlet and two surfers nearly drowned in March after getting caught in a powerful current.
The teens were saved after grabbing onto a pillar under the jetty.
“Honest to God, I thought I was going to die,” said Nick Quigley, in an interview with The Post last year.
Although there may be local ordinances banning swimming at dangerous spots along the coast, it’s not inherently illegal to swim in the Intracoastal or inlet waterways, said Katie Purcell, a spokeswoman with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.
“However, we would not encourage anyone to swim without any kind of support vessel or other visual cue around them in waters normally traversed by vessels and not normally occupied by swimmers,” Purcell said.
Also, people could get cited if they are deemed to be impeding marine traffic.
Chuck Collins, executive director of the Marine Industries Association of Palm Beach County, said people should check the tide schedule before going in the water near an inlet and understand how tides work.
Tides are strongest and highest during new moons and full moons when the sun and moon align with the Earth, their gravitational pulls at their peak. The lowest tides, or neap tides, occur when the sun and moon are at right angles to one another, their gravitational pulls working against each other.
Slack tides are a period in between tides that can last from an hour to two hours where the water has less of a current.
“If you go snorkeling and you’re in a slack tide, you’re just relaxing, then the tide switches, and you could get caught,” said Collins, a former Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission officer. “It’s real easy to get hurt or even die when you’re having a good time. This isn’t DisneyWorld, this is nature.”