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Rip Currents: What They Are and How To Handle Them - July 31, 2016

Every summer in Ocean City, Maryland, life guards are kept busy saving beachgoers from drowning in rip currents. Eighty percent of all beach rescues in the country are caused by rip currents. It’s easy to see that rip currents are a huge problem, in the summer of 2014 alone, five people died from drowning in rip currents on the beaches of Ocean City. The risk of swimmers getting caught in these dangerous currents could be greatly reduced by learning to identify, avoid, and survive a rip current.


Rip currents are caused by a gap in offshore sand bars which produce narrow channels of fast-moving, seaward bound water. They can move very quickly, up to eight feet per second, which is faster than an Olympic swimmer. Rip currents can be identified by one, none, or several of the following aspects: different colored water, debris flowing swiftly out to sea, a break in the wave pattern, and/or a seemingly calm spot amidst the waves. Each of these can be indicators of a rip current under the surface. If a swimmer notices a spot that has any of these indicators it would be best to try to avoid swimming there. Unfortunately, the calm spots in the water can attract swimmers, who have no idea of the strong current beneath the surface. However, more often than not rip currents are very hard to identify until a swimmer finds themselves caught in one.


The most important thing for a swimmer to do when they find themselves in this situation is to remain calm. Even the most experienced of swimmers will have trouble if they panic. It’s almost a natural instinct to immediately try to fight against the current to get back to shore, but that will only fatigue the swimmer. Rip currents pull water from the beach and out past the breakers back to open water. The channel of swift water moving out to sea is called the “neck”, which carries the water past the sandbar and breakers to open water. Once it’s past the breakers, the “head” of the rip current deposits the water and the current loses its speed and strength. These currents can occur not only where there are gaps in the sandbar, but also around piers and jetties. To safely exit the current, the swimmer should swim parallel to shore and out of the current, which is usually very narrow. Once the current is no longer pulling on them, the swimmer can then safely swim to the shore. If the swimmer cannot swim well or is too tired to swim parallel, they should calmly tread water or lie on their back and float with the current until they can be rescued or until they are out of the current.


Swimmers should always pay attention to posted warnings and stay out of the water in dangerous conditions. There are greater chances for dangerous currents when a storm is near or has recently passed. If there are lifeguards, the swimmer should make sure to stay within their sight, especially if there are rip current warnings posted. They should also feel free to ask the lifeguard on duty any questions they may have about rips or if there are any rip currents that they should be aware of on the beach.


Contrary to popular belief, rip currents cannot pull a swimmer vertically underwater and hold them down. Most deaths from drowning occur because the swimmer panics or attempts to swim directly against the current, leaving them exhausted. Another popular myth is that rip currents, rip tides, and undertows are all the same things. Rip tides are strong offshore currents the pull water in and out of inlets. The danger comes from the falling tides, that are pulling water from the inlet out to sea, and could potentially pull a person out to sea. Undertows are generally not life-threatening, they come from the current that is produced from the backwash of a wave, when it pulls the water back into the next wave, which would then break on the beach. The danger from an undertow mainly affects young children, because it can knock them around in the waves. Knowing the differences between these three currents, and how to handle them is important to being safe at the beach. 
Rip currents can be life threatening, but when swimmers are educated on identifying rip currents, their dangers, and how to deal with them, there is a much better chance of survival, and hopefully less rescues to be performed.

 

Mottley is the STEM Intern for the Maryland Coastal Bays Program. 

 



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