Rip Currents: What You Need to Know

When people think about the dangers of going to the beach, the first thing that comes to mind is usually sharks. However, in the United States there are only 16 shark attacks per year, with one fatality every two years. So, if sharks are not the problem, what do people really have to look out for when going to the beach? The unexpected, but deadly phenomenon: rip currents. The United States Lifesaving Association says that there are over 100 drownings per year due to rip currents and that they account for over 80% of rescues performed by.

Rip currents are narrow channels of fast-moving water that push out towards the sea (away from the shore.) Once you get caught in one it becomes almost impossible to swim yourself out. Rip currents are powerful and can be as fast as eight feet per second. Trust me, as someone who lived near beaches all my life, they are stronger than you would think. I’ve witnessed how devastating they can be, as I saw three people drown due to rip currents and one go missing. Something extremely important to note about rip currents: if they are powerful enough, no one can go in and save you. However, if you educate yourself on this dangerous phenomenon, you can avoid rip currents and have a safe time on your next beach trip.

When and where rip currents form

Rip currents form on most beaches everyday but are usually slow. However, during high surf conditions when the waves are large and lengthy, rip currents are at their most dangerous. So, if you don’t surf, I would advise avoiding the beach on these days. Rip currents form at low spots, breaks in sandbars, and near structures. This means you are not necessarily safe just because you are near the shore.

How to spot rip currents

Rip currents can have one or multiple of these characteristics:

-Churning, choppy water

-A spot in the water with a noticeable difference in watercolor

-Debris, seaweed and seafoam moving seaward

-A break in the normal wave pattern

How to survive rip currents

If you find yourself trapped in a rip current the first and most important step is to not panic and remain calm. The next step is to relax yourself and conserve your energy by floating or treading water (just keeping your head above water), using as little energy as possible until the rip current has weakened and you can swim out of it or until it pushes you out. This might take up to three minutes, so during this remain calm, think positive and regulate your breathing. The most dangerous thing you can do in a riptide is fight the current and try to swim back to shore.  All this is going to do is push you further in and waste your energy, making it more likely that you’ll drown. The official recommendation of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) is to swim parallel to shore, however some research suggests floating until you reach the end of the current. If you are not a strong swimmer, I would highly recommend floating as this takes less of your energy and strength to do. If you don’t know how to swim, you shouldn’t go into the ocean unless you have floats. If you need help and can’t reach the shore, call for help and draw attention to yourself by waving and yelling.

Other tips

-Do not leave children alone in the water and always keep an eye on them. Make sure they have a floatation device with them if nobody can accompany them into the water. Kids don’t have as much strength as adults and have a much higher chance of drowning to rip currents.

-If you see someone in trouble, call for help by either getting a lifeguard or, if one is not available, calling 9-1-1. Yell instructions on how to get out and throw them a floating device.  Do NOT go into the water to try to save them. You will only get yourself stuck in the rip current too and will be in trouble yourself.

-Try not to swim alone at the beach, swim in an area with other people or go into the ocean with friends.

Most importantly, stay safe when you are at the beach and take the necessary precautions to help you and others avoid rip currents.

Photo Credit: 1, 2, 3

Sources: 1, 2, 3, 4