Now that the death toll for rip currents has claimed nearly 70 victims so far this year, your primary care doctors and specialists at The Medical Group of South Florida want to again raise awareness of this deadly—but completely preventable—cause of death.
According to the U.S. Lifesaving Association (USLA), nearly 80% all rescues made by lifeguards at ocean beaches are from rip currents. Although they can occur any time, they are especially prevalent when the ocean is churned up with powerful offshore storms, as we’ve seen this summer. And since hurricane season lasts until the end of November, we have several weeks left to face this common killer.
A rip current is a powerful, narrow channel of fast-moving water that can rush at speeds of up to eight feet per second, pulling swimmers away from the shore out into open water. They usually extend through the line of breaking waves, but can flow a hundred yards or more offshore. They can be as narrow as 20 feet or as broad as several hundred yards wide.
A rip current is not a rip tide, which is a misnomer. Tides are gradual changes in the water level. Rip currents typically form at the break in a sandbar, but can also occur near groins, jetties, and piers, and form at any beach with breaking waves, including those along the Great Lakes. Some occur rapidly and dissipate just as quickly; others are more or less permanent, especially if they occur near a fixed object like a reef.
Often called undertow, rip currents don’t actually pull swimmers under the water. The strongest pull is actually felt about a foot above the bottom, which can knock your feet out from under you, making you feel you’re being pulled under, even though you’re not. But because of the current’s power, as the shoreline rapidly recedes, swimmers panic, struggle, exhaust themselves, and drown.
How To Spot a Rip Current
It’s often difficult for the average beachgoer to identify a rip current from the shore, but in general, you should look for a channel of churning, choppy water; an area with a noticeable difference in the color of the water, caused by sand and sediment being churned up by the water; a line of foam, seaweed, or debris moving out to sea; or a break or gap in the incoming wave pattern. These are often signs of a rip current, but remember that many rip currents are completely invisible, which is one reason they kill an average of 100 people a year.
How To Avoid a Rip Current
Check weather and surf forecasts before heading to the beach. The National Weather Service (NWS) posts rip current warnings when conditions favor their formation.
The USLA offers the following tips to avoid being caught in a rip current:
- Learn how to swim if you’re going to venture more than ankle-deep in the water. If you can swim, you can escape.
- 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.
How To Survive a Rip Current
According to the USLA, the most important thing to do when caught in a rip current is to remain calm. This helps you conserve energy and think clearly. Realize that you will not be pulled indefinitely out to sea; remember that most rip currents dissipate within a hundred yards of shore.
Don’t fight the current. Swim out of the current in a direction following (parallel to) the shore. Once you’re out of the current’s pull, swim at an angle through the waves back to shore.
If for some reason you can’t 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 one is not available, call 911. Throw the 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.