Growing up on Cape Cod, my dad was a real stickler about safety in the water, mostly due to his survival training as an Air Force pilot. Naturally, I became a lifeguard during the summer months where I learned to be aware of the potential danger presented by rip currents.
Also known as rip tides, rip currents are powerful, fast-moving channels of water that flow from the shoreline to beyond where waves break. They can form on any beach or lake shore where waves are breaking, often near sandbars, jetties and piers. According to the United States Lifesaving Association (USLA), they are the leading surf hazard for beach-goers. At least 80 percent of lifeguard rescues are due to rip currents. More than 100 people die each year from rip current-related drownings alone – that’s more than shark attacks, tornadoes and lightning strikes combined. Rip currents are capable of dragging even the strongest of swimmers far away from the shore, causing distress and panic.
Rip currents are dangerous, and it’s best to learn how to identify and stay out of them, but unfortunately, most people do not know what to look for. Some of the more recognizable characteristics of a rip current include:
- A choppy channel of water that has a churning motion
- A line of sea foam, seaweed or debris that is moving steadily out to sea
- A disrupted pattern of incoming waves
If you should get caught in a rip current, don’t panic. Knowing what to do could save your life, so try to remember a few simple rules:
- Keep calm. Don’t fight the rip current.
- To get out of the rip current, swim sideways, parallel to the beach. This will get you out of the rip current so you can swim back to shore, using the waves to help you along.
- If you can’t escape by swimming, try to float or calmly tread water. Rip currents eventually weaken offshore. When it does, swim at an angle away from the rip current toward shore.
- If at any time you are unable to reach the shore, draw attention to yourself: face the shore, wave your arms, and yell for help.
NOAA’s National Weather Service issues regional surf zone forecasts that help local authorities determine an area’s risk for rip currents (low, moderate, and high risk). These risk assessments help lifeguards and law enforcement officials determine whether the water is safe for swimming, and beach patrols will often post rip current signs and surf hazard warnings that correspond to specific surf conditions and local rip current activity. Before you step foot in the water this summer, familiarize yourself with the warning flags for your area and swim only on guarded beaches.
Rip currents can be dangerous but knowing the signs of one can help you relax and have some fun in the sun. What other tips do you have for staying safe at the beach this summer?