The Oak Island Water Rescue team saved its first life of the 2019 season last Monday when members retrieved a child blown far offshore on an oversized pool float.
Just before noon, emergency dispatchers got a call that an 8-year-old boy from Ohio was helplessly adrift at sea about a half-mile offshore from SE 37th Street. The child, who can’t swim, got caught by a north wind that quickly pushed him and a six-by-eight-foot unicorn pool float away from family and friends enjoying a day on the beach.
Waves that day were miniscule, with a shore break of about one foot. The biggest factor, witnesses said, was a steady north breeze, which makes Oak Island’s south-facing beaches deceptively calm. Local boaters know that past the surf zone, the north wind can be challenging.
The child was playing in the float along the shore with about a dozen people nearby, said Tony Young, chief of Oak Island Water Rescue. “There were at least five people right around him and they were laughing when the waves rocked him and bounced the float off the sand,” Young said.
A larger wave broke and pulled the float farther from shore. Then, the longshore current starting moving the boy and the float parallel to the strand, Young said.
Young said the boy’s father left his chair to catch the child, but the wind quickly moved the float seaward of the small surf zone. The father jumped in and swam toward the float but couldn’t catch the boy, Young said.
The boy’s uncle - a strong swimmer - also jumped in and tried to catch the boy and float but couldn’t reach him.
Young said the less-than-energetic surf zone and north wind worked against the youngster and a pool float that can hold several people.
“That thing acted like a big ole’ sail,” Young said. “It happened very quickly and the family did the right thing by calling ‘911’ right away.”
Police, firefighters and Water Rescue responded. The scene is less than a mile from the headquarters of Water Rescue, whose members launched a surf boat.
At one point, the child’s mother told responders she believed the float was beginning to deflate and it was so far out that she could see only the top of the “unicorn head.”
Team members retrieved the child and float less than 10 minutes after launching and brought the victim back to his parents, who were “very shook up,” Young reported.
The chief suggested that beach-goers leave pool tools at the pool or let children play with them in tidal pools, not the open ocean. Otherwise, it’s smart to tie off floats with a rope and anchor, or simple tie them to a large bucket filled with sand.
Water Rescue had several calls last season about floats blown out to sea, with no details about whether someone was on them.
“The reason we launched our surf boat then was because I said ‘One day it’ll be a little kid hanging on to that float” and sure enough, it happened,” Young said.
The lesson is to be aware and don’t treat the ocean like a giant pool, even on deceptively calm days with small waves, Young said.