Some of the most popular beach destinations have an unsuspecting danger – rip currents. Rip currents are strong, narrow channel of water that moves out to sea at about eight feet per second. They are the number one danger at the beach and account for about 80% of lifeguard rescues in the U.S. alone. They are the cause of drownings worldwide.
You can keep your beach vacation safe by knowing how to spot a rip current before entering the water — and if you do get caught in one — knowing how to escape.
Children playing in the water along the shore or people wading in knee-high to waist-high water have been pulled out to sea by rip currents. Oftentimes there are no beach flags or warning signs letting you know that these dangers exist.
Rip currents can occur at any beach where there are breaking waves, and they typically occur during low tide when the water is pulling away from the beach. Rip currents do not pull you under the water – they rapidly pull you out away from shore.
Many of us think that a beach is safe if it’s packed with people. However, the recent near-drownings of several children and adults on a beach in Florida are a reminder of how important it is to be aware of rip currents. The children were playing on the shore and were pulled out by a rip. Their parents then tried to save them and got into trouble as well.
Thankfully, the story has a happy ending. Several people formed a human chain and threw float boards to those in trouble and were able to save them.
After seeing firsthand the dangers of rip currents, I realized how important it is for beachgoers to be aware of this hidden danger. While on vacation at a popular resort outside the U.S., there were three near-drownings in rip currents at the beach right outside the hotel. There were no warnings or posted signs on the beach. One was a small child. Thankfully, he had a lifejacket on when he got pulled out to sea. This beach was filled with tourists and the majority of them had no idea that there were dangerous rip currents.
I later found out that this beach has endangered many swimmers, yet the resorts in the area fail to inform their guests.
How to Spot a Rip Current:
Appears like Calm Water between Breaking Waves:
When you arrive at the beach, stand back and look at how the water is coming into shore. If you see a small patch of calm water between turbulent breaking waves or a break in the wave pattern, that is most likely a rip current. It actually entices people to swim or wade there because they think it is a calmer place to swim. It is not.
Rip Currents may be Different in Color than the surrounding water:
Rip currents will sometimes be a different color than the surrounding water (opaque, cloudy, muddier, purplish, etc.), and they can also be foamy or have debris that is flowing out away from shore. Normally, debris flows toward shore if no rip currents are present.
Are prevalent around Sandbars, Jutties, Piers, or Groins:
Rip currents are also prevalent around sandbars, jutties, piers, or groins. If swimming in these areas, be extra cautious and know what to look for.
Can be a Channel of Choppy Water without Waves:
Rip currents can also look like a channel of churning or choppy water without waves.
How to Swim out of a Rip Current:
When you get caught in a rip current, you will feel lifted up and rapidly being carried out away from the shore. It has been compared to a treadmill of water. Picture what would happen if you suddenly stopped running on a treadmill.
What you do next is crucial.
1. First of all, know that the rip current does end. It will not just continue to pull you out to sea. This can help to reduce the panic you may feel. Never try to swim against the current. You will not win, even if you are the strongest of swimmers. Swimmers end up drowning when they try to swim against the rip because they get tired.
Also, remember that it is a narrow channel, so you can swim out of it.
2. According to the U.S. Lifesaving Association, you should swim parallel to shore to get out of the rip or just float until the rip releases you (it will), and then swim parallel to shore until you are out of the rip and then angle back toward shore.
3. Sometimes rip currents are diagonal to shore. If you try swimming parallel to shore and are not making any headway, turn around and swim in the opposite direction, still parallel to the shore.
4. You can also just tread water and yell for help or wave your arms if you are able, to get the lifeguard’s attention.
5. Rip currents can occur around jetties and other structures. If you are by one of these structures, swim away from it — parallel to the shore.
6. Swim toward the closest breaking wave. That is the edge of the rip current.
7. If you see someone who is caught in a rip current, toss them some type of floating device. Even a rope, ball, or cooler might work. Do not go in the rip current yourself. Instead, yell out clear instructions on how they can swim out of the current and point in the direction they need to swim. Have someone call for help. This could save their life.
Swim where there’s a Lifeguard:
If you are not familiar with the beach or the water conditions, swim where there is a lifeguard. Make sure that children wear a lifejacket when playing around the water.
Know how to spot a rip current and what to do if you get caught in one. You can avoid a potentially life-threatening situation by knowing what to look for.
To check beach conditions in the U.S., visit the National Weather Service Surf and Rip Current Forecast.
Check out the following links for more information on rip currents.
Rip Current Survival Guide at Ocean Today.
Rip Currents: The Ocean’s Deadliest Trick at Live Science.
Rip Current Safety at National Oceanic and Weather Administration.