How to survive a rip current (Video)

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Aerial view of several rip currents provided by National Weather Service, courtesy of Dr. Wendy Carey, Delaware Sea Grant. Aerial view of several rip currents provided by National Weather Service, courtesy of Dr. Wendy Carey, Delaware Sea Grant. Heading to the beach? Here are some safety tips to help you avoid being caught in a rip current, and advice on what to do if you are

Each summer seems to bring with it a number of drowning deaths along the shores of New Jersey and the East Coast. Many of those deaths are the result of bathers getting caught in
rip currents.

Nearly everyone who has put their feet in the ocean has felt the pull of the tide. But what, exactly, is a rip current, and why are they so dangerous?

According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, rip currents are channeled currents of water that flow away from shore. They typically extend from the shoreline through the surf zone, and past the line of breaking waves. Rip currents can occur at any beach with breaking waves, including the Great Lakes.

Rip currents are sometimes called riptides or undertow, but these terms are improper and should not be used to describe them, the NOAA says (I can still remember my mother’s shouts of “Watch out for the undertow!” and our childhood fear of the “undertoad”).  

Rip currents most typically form at low spots or breaks in sandbars, and near structures such as groins, jetties and piers. They can be narrow or massive – just a few yards wide or hundreds of yards across. The seaward pull of rip currents varies. Sometimes the rip current ends just beyond the line of breaking waves, but more powerful rip currents continue to push hundreds of yards offshore.

Rip current speeds vary. According to the NOAA, average speeds are 1-2 feet per second, but currents as fast as 8 feet per second have been measured.

It is important to note that even people standing knee-deep in the water can be carried away by a rip current.

Rip currents can cause emotional distress, panic, contusions and abrasions, internal and external injuries, suffocation and death due to drowning. The U.S. Lifesaving Association attributes 80 percent of all surf zone rescues to rip currents.

The National Weather Service and the National Sea Grant Program, in partnership with the U.S. Lifesaving Association, are working together to raise awareness about the dangers of rip currents and how bathers can protect themselves. Their Break the Grip of the Rip awareness program provides information on how to avoid getting caught in a rip current, what to do if you do get caught, and how to assist someone else caught in a current without becoming a victim.

Before you go to the beach

KNOW HOW TO SWIM. Seems simple enough, but this is the single most important piece of advice to follow. People who do not know how to swim who are pulled out to sea by a rip current stand little chance of survival, according to the National Weather Service. The NWS stresses that just because you are in shallow water does not mean you are safe. A person standing waist-deep in water can be dragged out into deeper waters, where they can drown.

In April 2004, a 19-year-old man who was standing in knee-deep ocean water was killed by a rip current, the NWS said. Knocked off his feet, the man, who was a non-swimmer, was pulled out to sea and drowned.

Check the Surf Zone Forecast for your area

A daily rip current outlook is included in the Surf Zone Forecast, which is issued by many coastal National Weather Service offices. The forecast uses a three-tiered structure – low, medium and high – to describe the rip current risk. This outlook is communicated to lifeguards, emergency managers, media and the general public.

Low risk of rip currents: Wind or wave conditions are not expected to support the development of rip currents; however, rip currents can sometimes occur, especially in the vicinity of groins, jetties and piers. Know how to swim and heed the advice of lifeguards.

Moderate risk of rip currents: Wind or wave conditions support stronger or more frequent rip currents. Only experienced surf swimmers should enter the water.

High risk of rip currents: Wind or wave conditions support dangerous rip currents. Rip currents are life-threatening to anyone entering the surf.

When you get to the beach

Whenever possible, swim at a lifeguard-protected beach. Ask a lifeguard about the conditions before entering the water. This is part of their job.

Never swim alone.

Never swim at night. Rip currents can be more dangerous at night simply because you cannot see them like you can during daylight hours.

Stay at least 100 feet away from piers and jetties. Permanent rip currents often exist alongside these structures.

Use polarized sunglasses. They will help you to spot signatures of rip currents by cutting down glare and reflected sunlight off the ocean's surface.

Avoid the "It won't happen to me" syndrome. Obey all instructions and orders from lifeguards and posted signs. They are there for your wellbeing.

If caught in a rip current

Remain calm and don’t try to fight the current; you will only exhaust yourself. You will not be pulled under the surface of the water, according to the National Weather Service. Safety officials stress that rip currents do not pull people under the water; they pull people away from shore.

Swim parallel to the shore to escape the current. As soon as you are out of the current, only then swim toward the beach. You will not make it swimming directly against the current. It will be too strong for you.

Another option is to just float or tread water. Eventually you will reach the end of the current. Then, either swim parallel to the shore to get out of the path of the rip current, and once you do so, only then swim toward the beach, or face the shore and draw attention to yourself by waving your arms and yelling for help.

If you see someone in distress

If you see a swimmer who looks like he or she might be in trouble, throw the rip current victim something that floats – a life vest, a cooler, an inflatable ball.

Get help from a lifeguard. If a lifeguard is not available call 911.

Yell instructions on how to escape the rip current. Tell the person which way to swim.

Below is a video on rip current safety provided by the National Weather Service. For more information see ripcurrents.noaa.gov  or noaawatch.gov .

Swim parallel to the shore to escape the current. Swim parallel to the shore to escape the current.


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