Two Marines were swimming off the coast of North Carolina when a friend still on the beach said he couldn’t see them anymore.
It would take several hours before they both returned to shore.
The Marines stationed at Camp Lejeune in Jacksonville were swimming a few hours near Cape Lookout Point when they were “swept out to sea” by a powerful rip current, officials with the U.S. Marine Corps 2d Marine Division said in a news release Tuesday.
Rip currents are “powerful, narrow channels of fast-moving water” that pull swimmers away from shore, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
Cpl. James Farley said he was sitting on the shore when he realized his friends, Lance Cpl. Colton Harpole and Lance Cpl. Quentin Wigg, were no longer within eyesight. He borrowed a pair of binoculars and was able to spot Wigg in the water, according to the release.
It took Wigg, who is from Hastings, Michigan, over an hour to swim back to shore.
“I had made this swim before, but that day the rip current had just been worse,” Wigg said in the release. “Once I got out, my first thought was my buddy, and I didn’t see him.”
Harpole was still in the water and out of sight, officials said, and the U.S. Coast Guard had been called in to search via helicopter.
People on the beach eventually spotted him.
“I was just trying to keep a calm mental state,” Harpole said. “That seemed like the best way to handle the situation. I knew that if I started freaking out and panicking then I wouldn’t make it out of this.”
Harpole — who is from Louisville, Kentucky — was rescued after three hours at sea, officials said. He was taken to the hospital to be evaluated and was subsequently released.
All three returned to Camp Lejeune unharmed.
The Marines credited their return in-part to a weekly safety briefing given by 1st Sgt. Michael Archer.
“I specifically emphasized that if they didn’t listen to anything else I said, listen to the part about rip currents,” Archer said. “I told my guys to only swim where there were lifeguards, not to try to fight against the current and stay calm.”
Col. Steven Sutey, commanding officer of 2d Marine Regiment, said they were saved by a combination of factors — understanding the threat, staying calm, their own physical stamina and help from bystanders.
“It would be too easy to say these Marines were lucky,” he said.
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