Did you know rip currents are responsible for nearly 100 deaths each year on United States beaches? The good news? Rip currents are easily survivable if you know what to do. Be sure to read this if you’re heading to the beach this summer – it could literally save your life.
What is a rip current?
A rip current is a quickly-flowing “river” of ocean water that has the capacity to drag even the strongest of swimmers away from shore in a perpendicular (90-degree) direction. The current flows quickly away from shore, cutting through lines of breaking waves. Rips form when water pushed toward the beach by incoming waves has to find a place where it can flow back out to sea.
How to avoid rip currents:
- Always look for, and obey, signs: Beaches where rip currents frequently form often have warning signs posted to that effect. The signs likely weren’t put there for fun – usually, it’s because someone was pulled out to sea and drowned. Take signs seriously.
- Ask a lifeguard: A surprisingly large percentage of rescues are due to rip currents – as many as 80 percent, according to the U.S. Lifesaving Association. As a result, experienced lifeguards tend to know where rip currents will form on a particular beach. Although casual chatting with lifeguards is always discouraged, asking them what they know about local rip currents is wise.
- Look for visual cues: While some rip currents are invisible, sometimes you can detect one visually in the water, from the perspective of the beach. Clues include: a break in the pattern of incoming waves; a “river” of choppy, churning water; seawater of a different color in a channel flowing perpendicular to the beach; and a line of seaweed, surface foam or floating beach debris flowing out to sea.
- Beware of hot spots: Rip currents most often form at low spots on the beach, or at breaks in sandbars where water can easily and quickly flow back out to sea. Man-made structures like piers and jetties can also encourage the formation of rip currents.
- Know how to swim: This seems like an obvious piece of advice, but thousands of people venture into the ocean each year who don’t know how to swim or even float. Even venturing ankle-deep into the ocean, you should know how to swim!
What to do if you’re caught in one:
- Keep calm: Panic will prevent logical action. If you find the rip current is simply too strong to escape, tread water until the current dissipates, then swim back to shore. Think of the rip current as a treadmill that you have to step off, not something to fight. Also, remember that you’re not being pulled under, you’re being pulled out to sea – so while it’s scary, drowning isn’t imminent.
- Don’t fight it: Rather than swim directly against a rip current, toward the beach, try to swim parallel to the shore, escaping the current that way. Swimming against a rip current will quickly exhaust even strong swimmers. Because a rip current flows out to sea and eventually dissipates and slows, smart swimmers will sometimes “go with the current” for a few yards, let nature do its thing, then slowly try to “curve” out of the weakening current, arcing back toward shore.
If you’re on a beach with a lifeguard, don’t try to be a hero and try to save yourself without attempting to get help. Wave your arms toward shore for assistance. That’s what lifeguards are there for.
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