The water itself poses the greatest danger to beachgoers, surpassing the threats of sharks, jellyfish, and other marine creatures. According to the United States Lifesaving Association, rip currents account for almost 80% of all lifeguard rescues.
Understanding what rip currents are, how they form, and how to escape their potentially fatal grip is crucial for beach safety.
Rip currents are powerful water channels that can drag swimmers away from the shore and into the open ocean. Each year, over 100 individuals lose their lives due to these currents, as reported by the United States Lifesaving Association.
Rip currents can vary in width and strength. They can be as narrow as 10 to 20 feet or exceed ten times that width, as indicated by the National Weather Service (NWS). Their speed can exceed 5 miles per hour, surpassing that of Olympic swimmers.
What Causes Rip Currents?
"Rip currents form due to the presence of large swells that move towards coastal areas," explained Senior Meteorologist Dan Kottlowski.
Chaotic swells are generated by powerful storms, high winds, and strong circulation, which result in an increased volume of water along the coast. Rip currents can develop at any time throughout the year, even on sunny days when the factors contributing to their formation are located far offshore.
It is essential for beachgoers to pay attention to posted beach flags, which provide year-round warnings about ocean hazards. The presence of natural protective barriers in some areas may reduce the impact of rip currents, while others may experience the full force of nearby storms.
According to the NWS, rip currents typically form at low spots or breaks in sandbars and near man-made structures such as groins, jetties, and piers.
It is important to note that rip currents are not exclusive to ocean beaches; they can occur at any beach with breaking waves, including locations like the Great Lakes.
To ensure safety from rip currents, it is crucial to always swim in the presence of a lifeguard. The United States Lifesaving Association reports that the risk of drowning while swimming under lifeguard supervision is 1 in 18 million.
How to Escape a Rip Current
If caught in the grip of a powerful rip current, swimmers should refrain from panicking and attempting to swim directly back to the shore. Even strong swimmers can quickly become exhausted due to the force of the current.
When trapped in a rip current, the best course of action is to swim parallel to the shore until free from its influence.
"Attempting to swim against the outgoing water is futile," emphasized Kottlowski. "It's impossible. Those who get caught often panic, but staying calm and waiting for the water to calm down is the best approach."
After swimming parallel to the coast for approximately 50 to 100 yards, the trapped swimmer should start swimming at an angle away from the rip current and towards the shore.
If swimming parallel to the shore does not lead to escape, the United States Lifesaving Association recommends treading water calmly and waiting for the current to subside before swimming back to shore safely.
If reaching the shore seems impossible, the trapped swimmer should do their best to attract attention and alert a lifeguard or nearby observer who can seek assistance.
Kottlowski also emphasized the importance of being aware of potential dangers by checking NOAA forecasts for any warnings or alerts and consulting with local officials before entering the water.
"Never go in alone," he advised. "Each beach has its own unique characteristics."