Rockaways’ currents can be deadly if not treated with caution
Powerful waves. A shifting sand bar. Deadly rip currents. The Rockaways have them all – making its waters the most treacherous in the city, experts say.
“It’s completely open to the Atlantic Ocean, and it has very strong rip currents,” said veteran lifeguard Janet Fash, 49, who has worked the Rockaways for some 30 years. “It’s the type of area where nonswimmers and swimmers alike get in trouble.”
The notorious Queens beach, stretching from Breezy Point to the East Rockaway Inlet, has claimed the lives of six swimmers this summer.
As the latest drowning victim was mourned yesterday, experts revealed what makes the Rockaways the city’s deadliest beach.
The reasons are many.
Unlike at popular Coney Island – or at any other city beach – there’s nothing separating the Rockaways from the open sea. That makes it more susceptible to crushing waves, which regularly pound the sand bar that extends along the shore roughly 300 yards from the beach.
“In certain weather conditions, particularly with a lot of south wind, the waves can create an opening in the bar,” said Kevin Jeffrey, the Parks Department’s deputy commissioner of public programs.
“When that happens, it’s like turning over a 5-gallon water cooler bottle and ripping the lid open – all the water comes rushing out.
“If you’re there at that location, when that breach occurs, you get sucked out.”
The deadly currents – known as riptides – are also caused by a glut of jetties and groins, underwater structures that protect the coast.
After an especially strong wave pounds the shoreline, a stream of water rushes parallel to the beach as it searches for a route back out. The swift-moving current rips out to sea when it reaches a channel – often caused by another break in the sand bar – or hits a jetty or groin.
“These riptides appear and disappear across the beach,” said Henry Bokuniewicz, professor of oceanography at the Stony Brook School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences on Long Island.
“It’s almost impossible to predict where they’re going to form.”
Experts say another reason so many people die at the Rockaways has nothing to do with geography.
With easy access near a subway line, the Rockaways draw sunseekers from across the city – some of whom are not strong swimmers and still venture into the water when lifeguards are not around.
Large red signs appear along the beach at every block, warning swimmers in English and Spanish of the dangers of “strong currents and sudden dropoffs.”
Lifeguards watch the waters from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. during the summer.
Jose-Luis Olivares, 36, drowned in the waters off Jacob Riis Park on Friday after he pulled his 8-year-old daughter out of the surf and then went back to rescue his wife.
“He knows he died doing a good thing,” Olivares’ sister-in-law Guillermina Arreola said yesterday at a private vigil inside Grace Funeral Chapels in Brooklyn. “He’s a hero.”
Olivares’ wife, Elfega (Elvia) Arreola, appeared overcome with grief, sobbing as she stood before her husband’s gray coffin.
Frustrated Rockaway residents said more needs to be done to stop drownings.
“Something is either happening in the water or to our common sense,” said City Councilman James Sanders, who held a community “brainstorming” session this week. “Everyone needs to take these waters seriously.”
Sanders suggested a local beach watch could hand out information to swimmers who may be unaware of the lurking danger.
“Kids think it’s just a big bathtub,” said Queens resident Denean Ferguson.
Some residents said the warning signs may not be that effective. “Not everyone enters the beach at those places,” said Jackie Bascon, a 37-year resident of Rockaway.
Olivares’ nephew Jamie Mendoza said the family was still shocked the Rockaways swallowed his uncle, who was an experienced swimmer.
“My uncle was a very good swimmer,” Mendoza, 34, said. “Those waters had to be more treacherous than usual to overpower him.”
BY Edgar Sandoval, Oren Yaniv, Lisa Colangelo and Rich Schapiro