A rip current as seen from the beach – Credit NOAA
Although often life threatening situations are often telegraphed well in advance – such as through hurricane or tornado warnings - sometimes they appear without warning, even in idyllic settings such as while taking a dip at the beach.
While some people fret over the exceedingly low risk of a shark attack, or worry over swimming too soon after a meal, the real danger lies in the hard to spot, but none-the-less deadly rip currents, that can form along the shore.
This week (June 1st-June 7th) is National Rip Current Awareness Week (yes, it’s a real thing), and NOAA and other agencies are hoping to inform the public as to the dangers of, and the correct way to escape, rip currents.
Although I am a strong swimmer, and have spent much of my life either living on, or near, the water, I’ve had two occasions where I’ve been overpowered by a rip current. Once when I was 18 and skin diving in the Florida Keys, and again 40 years later, enjoying a vigorous pounding from the surf off St. Augustine Beach.
Both times, knowing how to swim across – not against – the current saved my life.
Each year the United States Life Saving Organization (representing lifeguards and water rescue personnel around the country) estimates that at least a hundred people weren’t as lucky, and that rip currents are responsible for 80% of rescues performed by beach lifeguards
Look for any of these clues:
- a channel of churning, choppy water
- an area having a notable difference in water color
- a line of foam, seaweed, or debris moving steadily seaward
- a break in the incoming wave pattern
None, one, or more of the above clues may indicate the presence of rip currents. Rip currents are often not readily or easily identifiable to the average beachgoer. For your safety, be aware of this major surf zone hazard. Polarized sunglasses make it easier to see the rip current clues provided above.
Photo courtesy of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Field Research Facility at Duck, NC.
Learn how to swim!
- Never swim alone.
- Be cautious at all times, especially when swimming at unguarded beaches. If in doubt, don’t go out!
- Whenever possible, swim at a lifeguard protected beach.
- Obey all instructions and orders from lifeguards.
- If caught in a rip current, remain calm to conserve energy and think clearly.
- Don’t fight the current. Swim out of the current in a direction following the shoreline. When out of the current, swim towards shore.
- If you are unable to swim out of the rip current, float or calmly tread water. When out of the current, swim towards shore.
- If you are still unable to reach shore, draw attention to yourself: face the shore, wave your arms, and yell for help.
- If you see someone in trouble, get help from a lifeguard. If a lifeguard is not available, have someone call 9-1-1 . Throw the rip current victim something that floats and yell instructions on how to escape. Remember, many people drown while trying to save someone else from a rip current.
While nothing beats a beautiful day at the beach, there are hazards there that must be accounted for. To help you this summer to make your visit a safe one, NOAA maintains a Beach Hazards and Safety page:
And lastly, in addition to packing the beach towels, sunscreen, and picnic basket . . . don’t forget the first aid kit. And if you haven’t taken a CPR course or a refresher in recent years (see A Minute Now Could Save A Life Later), consider packing that bit of expertise along with you as well.