What to do if you're caught in a rip current
There's a deadly and hidden danger that most swimmers, whether on the shores of a Great Lake or at their local beach, aren't aware of.
Rip currents, which can take place on even the most beautiful and sunniest of days, account for over 80 percent of beach lifeguard rescues. You might recognize the term pop up in the news frequently over the summer as beachgoers flock to the water, but given its potential to kill even the strongest of swimmers, rip currents are something to pay attention to.
Most recently, the current was responsible for the death of a teen at a Florida beach as well as a Tennessee father-of-three, who passed away after rescuing his three daughters from a current. The United States Lifesaving Association (USLA) estimates that the death count in the United States every year due to rip currents far exceeds 100.
To put that in perspective, only one person per year is killed by a shark in the United States. In 2012 alone, there were 35,935 rip current rescues in the United States, while there were only 53 shark attacks.
Swimmers have a duty to recognize the signs of rip currents and what to do if he or she is caught in one.
What is a rip current?
The National Ocean Service describes rip currents as "a localized current that flows away from the shoreline toward the ocean, perpendicular or at an acute angle to the shoreline." Most rip currents, which are many times incorrectly called rip tides, occur around low spots, sand bars or piers.
How can I identify a rip current?
While many beaches will post warnings, whether through lifeguards or signs, if the risk of rip currents is particularly high that day, swimmers should still educate themselves on the conditions of the water and look out for these clues.
According to the USLA, rip currents can be identifiable by:
- 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
Some rip currents may be characterized by any of these signs. Additionally, many rip currents are often not recognizable to the average beachgoer, so it's important to heed the warnings provided by the lifeguard or in the local weather news. Additionally, swimmers should be sure to never swim alone and only swim when a lifeguard is present.
Why is a rip current so dangerous?
Rip currents can move anywhere from 1 to 2 feet per second up to even 8 feet per second, making it a very common danger for even the strongest of swimmers. Given the speed the current can move, swimmers can be swept away from shore quite quickly. While some rip currents can "dissipate just beyond the line of breaking waves," some rip currents can push swimmers hundreds of yards off the shore.
The danger occurs when swimmers become exhausted trying to get back to land and drown.
What should I do if I'm caught in a rip current?
Experts suggest that if a swimmer finds himself or herself caught in a rip current, the most important thing they should remember is to not fight the current and to remain calm in order to conserve energy. Swimmers can swim out of the current by swimming parallel to the shoreline instead of directly towards it. Once out of the current, they can swim to shore.
If swimmers are unable to swim along the shoreline, he or she can also allow the current to carry them until it weakens by calmly floating.
You can learn more about the dangers of rip currents and how to fight them here.
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