Sandbars, tides a risky mix for Lowcountry holiday beachgoers

Breach Inlet is an area of sandbars and treacherous tide changes between Sullivan’s Island (right) and the Isle of Palms.

SULLIVAN’S ISLAND — Watch the tides while wading out to sandbars this holiday weekend, a public safety official warns. Three children and two teens had to be rescued from a sandbar at Breach Inlet on Tuesday after the tide swept in and stranded them,

The teens had tried to rescue the children themselves, on boogie boards, said Sullivan’s Island Fire Chief Anthony Stith. “The tide was coming in and they started going sideways,” he said.

Tides on the shallow sandbars on Lowcountry beaches are tricky, deceptively strong and sometimes prone to rip currents between the bars. Rip currents are abrupt, powerful surges out to sea. They tend to occur when shore current, or undertow along the beach, is strong.

The inlets are treacherous and chronic trouble spots. They are subject to tidal runs, or “maximum tidal currents,” peak periods in the tide change when the stream surges. At spots like Breach Inlet, a wade to a sandbar can turn to a perilous swim back in minutes.

With thousands of holiday beachgoers — not all of them experienced — crowding the sand and people looking for open spots, the chances increase that someone will misjudge or simply be ignorant of the dangers.

Over Memorial Day weekend, a stranded swimmer drowned, and a couple and their two children had to be rescued, Stith said.

“It’s just people not paying attention on the sandbars to the tide coming in behind them,” he said.

Sullivan’s Island’s two inlets and others in the Charleston area are clearly marked as dangerous and no swimming, but Stith said the Fire Department has rescued one swimmer who walked past three caution signs and a no swimming warning sign before getting in the water.

The drowning and recent rescues prompted concern after a relatively quiet year in 2014, Stith said. But he can recall the department performing 30 rescues during a previous May.

National Weather Service, Charleston forecasters expected a moderate rip current risk to be in place Friday after one was posted Thursday because of winds and the effect of a full moon.

“It should calm down through the weekend,” said meteorologist Doug Berry.

Reach Bo Petersen at 937-5744, @bopete on twitter or Bo Petersen Reporting on Facebook.