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Jul 12, 2016 4:32 PMPublication: The Southampton Press

Father Shares Experience After Rip Current Pulls Him And His Son Out To Sea

Rick Espineira, of Ronkonkoma, stands on Cupsogue Beach. AMANDA BERNOCCO
Jul 12, 2016 4:32 PM

At first glance, Rick Espineira thought his son, Justyn, was “just being stubborn.”

The 11-year-old had been enjoying the surf at Cupsogue Beach so much on the afternoon of Sunday, June 26, that his father did not immediately realize that he could not get out of the water after being knocked over by a large wave.

“We were just body surfing, playing around, and I turned around and realized he didn’t come back with me,” said Mr. Espineira, who lives in Ronkonkoma but recently returned to the Suffolk County beach that sits on the westernmost end of Dune Road, one of his family’s favorite spots to visit in the summer. “I was going to get him, but I decided to get the board because I’m just an average swimmer.”

That idea most likely saved both of their lives.

Mr. Espineira said he grabbed his boogie board and, upon reaching his son, who had been carried several dozen yards out from shore, became trapped in the same rip current that Justyn was caught up in. They were swimming in an unprotected stretch of beach—and, as a result, the two would spend the next 45 minutes clinging to the boogie board. Neither could muster the strength to swim back to shore, and neither would learn that he had been victimized by a rip current—a powerful current running perpendicular to the beach—until being informed by their rescuers.

As they clung to the board, a strong wind continued to push them farther and farther away from shore and toward the normally busy Moriches Inlet. Wendy Espineira, Mr. Espineira’s wife and Justyn’s mother, could only watch in horror as her family slowly drifted out to sea. Another beachgoer witnessing the event called 911.

Though it would be almost an hour before two Suffolk County Marine Bureau officers aboard a rescue boat would pluck him and his son from the water and bring them to safety, Mr. Espineira said Justyn did not show much fear even though he was growing worried as they continued to drift aimlessly and farther from shore.

“I started worrying about sharks and stuff,” Mr. Espineira said while recalling their ordeal. “He was calm,” he added, referring to Justyn. “I told him it was okay, [that] no one was mad.”

He explained that it was not until Suffolk County Marine Bureau Officers Robert Femia and Neil Stringer shared with them that they could have been struck by a passing boat that the danger of their situation began to sink in.

Mr. Espineira also confessed his unfamiliarity with rip currents, narrow channels of fast-moving water that can pull unsuspecting swimmers out to sea in mere seconds, wrongly thinking that they had simply been pulled out by the undertow—an omnipresent natural occurrence in which crashing waves churn up the bottom and tug at the feet of swimmers as crashing water retreats back into the ocean. He noted that the ocean near Cupsogue had been volatile that afternoon, saying that he was aware of the undertow.

“I heard of [rip currents],” Mr. Espineira said, “but I always thought it was just an undertow. But we didn’t go under,” he added.

Upon returning home that evening, he said he went online to read up on rip currents, only learning then that a person trapped in one is not supposed to fight it. He said it was then that he learned what they should have done: continued swimming parallel to the shore until breaking free of the rip current before making their way back to the beach. Panicked swimmers often make the potentially fatal mistake of trying to swim back to shore, fighting currents that can travel up to 8 feet per second, a pace faster than an Olympic swimmer, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Peter Gideon, a member of East Hampton Ocean Rescue, explained during a recent interview that swimmers caught in rip currents should never attempt to swim directly to shore as, most times, they will exhaust their energy fighting the same flow of water that pulled them out. Instead, he said, they need to remain calm and swim parallel to the shore until they can get out of the rip current’s path.

“Rips don’t pull you under,” Mr. Gideon said. “They’ll pull you out, but they won’t pull you under.”

He added that Mr. Espineira did the right thing when he grabbed the boogie board before jumping in the ocean to rescue his son, explaining that inexperienced swimmers often end up getting caught in the same current, giving lifeguards two people to rescue instead of just one.

“I don’t care what kind of swimmer you are, you can’t swim out of a rip current,” Mr. Gideon said. “No matter how strong you are it will just pull you out.”

Keeping that in mind, he said the first action taken by those who see someone struggling in a rip current is to alert a lifeguard or to call 911. He also said that only those experienced with water rescues should attempt to help an individual caught in a rip current.

East Hampton Ocean Rescue, a nonprofit founded in 2003 to educate people about water safety, recently paid for the installation of rip current warning sings at beaches across East Hampton Town, and has plans to install another at Coopers Beach in Southampton Village—the site of another rip current event that ended tragically. Two days before Mr. Espineira and his son were pulled out to sea, 18-year-old Tom Surdyke of Missouri, a cadet at West Point, became caught in a rip current at Coopers Beach. He was pulled, unresponsive, from the surf and died four days after being pulled from the ocean.

And the day after that incident, on June 25, two Hampton Bays brothers—Joseph Valentino, 29, and Richard Valentino, 26—became trapped in a rip current near the Shinnecock Inlet in Hampton Bays. Both were rescued by Jason Schorelin, the owner of Argo Adventures and a certified lifeguard who recognized what was happening and pulled both men to safety.

Rip currents are fairly common on the East End, due to natural currents and the motion of crashing waves, though their warning signs are not always obvious to the untrained eye. Mr. Gideon noted that the discoloration of churning water near the shore, and the way the waves break along a stretch of beach, can be indicators of rip currents.

As for Mr. Espineira, he said his family typically enjoys visiting unguarded beaches so they can escape from the crowds, though last month’s incident will most likely give them pause moving forward. “We like Cupsogue,” he said.

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So thankful that they were rescued.
By Ocean Lady (16), Southampton on Jul 15, 16 8:02 PM
This happened to my cousin at Jones Beach years ago in the 1970's and he was a lifeguard and a competitive butterfly stroke swimmer - Other lifeguards went out with him on safety boards to drift with him so he would not be alone - They said they went more than a mile out to sea before the current abated and they could get back to shore - there were three of them.
By Vikki K (490), Southampton on Jul 16, 16 9:59 PM