Posted on June 07, 2017
Don’t Get Swept Away: Know How to Escape a Rip Current
School ends this week for most children in eastern North Carolina and that means more weekend trips to the beach to enjoy the sand and waves. Most of us heading for the coast worry mainly about protecting our children (and ourselves) from sunburn or dehydration. But there’s a huge risk that most likely doesn’t even enter our minds: Rip currents.
In 2002, Wilmington residents Gay and JoAnn Swart lost their daughter, Crystal, to a rip current at Wrightsville Beach. Crystal and her friends found themselves in the terrifying situation while swimming, but did not know how to react. Since that horrible day the Swart’s have learned all they can about rip currents and how to escape them. The couple now shares that knowledge far and wide.
“We have tried to make the horrible loss of Crystal’s tragedy be an opportunity for others to learn and not have to walk that same journey,” Gay Swart said.
According to the U.S. Lifeguard Association, dangerous rip currents claim at least 100 lives a year near beaches around the world—a number more than 10 times higher than deaths from shark attacks. The organization reports that lifeguards saved over 48,000 people from rip currents in 2015 alone.
Even with such alarming statistics, few people know anything about rip currents or how to recognize one.
Chris Houser, a professor at Texas A&M, commented, “We have shown photographs to people and asked them to spot where the rip current is and almost no one correctly identifies the location. We once saw a Florida couple put their kids directly into a rip current off the beach despite signs that warned of rip currents. They later said they didn’t understand the sign and we found that is a common problem…beach signs can be confusing and not much help in locating rip currents.”
What is a Rip Current?
The National Weather Service explains that a rip current is a narrow channel of water quickly moving away from shore. They are often identifiable by the discolored, turbulent appearance of water. Rip currents extend from the shoreline, through a break in the sandbar found in the surf zone, and out past the line of breaking waves.
The organization says a rip current is comprised of three components:
- Feeder source: The area inshore of the sand bar where wave energy is focused.
- Neck: The location of the strongest current; where water is rushing away from shore.
- Head: This is where the effects of the rip current begins to disperse.
Professor Houser offers these tips for beach safety:
- Always swim on a beach with lifeguards;
- Pay attention to all warning signs on the beach—especially those with red warning flags about dangerous conditions in the area;
- Never swim in areas where it’s posted that swimming is not allowed; and
- Watch what you drink—too much alcohol is a leading cause of drownings.
“Almost all lifeguard associations say that about 80 percent of their rescues involve rip currents,” Houser adds. Don’t become a statistic.
Be Ready to Act
A rip current can for on any beach at any time, but swimmers usually don’t realize it’s there until they find themselves in its clutches. Swimmers often panic and try to make a beeline for the shore—struggling against the force of the current trying to take them farther out in the ocean.
If you happen to find yourself in a rip current, the National Weather Service recommends:
- Don’t fight the current. It’s too fast and you’ll only tire yourself out.
- Try to relax and float to save your energy. Remember, the current will not pull you underwater.
- If you’re a strong swimmer, swim parallel to the beach until you escape the pull of the current and then swim diagonally toward the shore away from the current.
- If you’re not a strong swimmer, or if you’re unable to escape the current, face the shore and wave or call for help.
The free Red Cross Swim App offers drowning prevention and safety tips along with child-friendly games, videos, and quizzes. The app can also be used to track a child’s progress during swim lessons. But remember: The app is not a substitute for learning how to swim. A survey conducted by the Red Cross in 2014 showed people believe they are better swimmers than they actually are. While most Americans say they can swim, only about half can perform basic swimming skills.
Pre-Plan for Safety
Don’t wait until the last minute to prepare yourself and your family for dangerous situations that might be encountered at the shore. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) also shares the following tips to keep your trip to the beach as worry free as possible:
- Check the National Weather Service Surf Zone Forecast: Before you head to the beach, check the official surf zone forecasts and/or beach advisories and closings link.
- Know How to Swim Before You Venture In: Swimming in a pool is not the same as swimming at a beach with crashing waves, winds, and dangerous currents. Changing ocean currents and winds can quickly exhaust your energy and strength. You should be a strong swimmer before you go into the ocean, Great Lakes, or Gulf of Mexico.
- Know What the Warnings Flags Mean: Read the beach safety signs at the entrance to the beach. Once on the beach, look for beach warning flags which are often posted on or near a lifeguard’s stand. A green flag means water conditions are safe and other colors mean conditions are not safe. These flags are there to protect you.
NOAA has created a dedicated website with an overview on rip currents. The site also includes links to real life rip current stories, media, and educational tools including multimedia, beach safety tips, local weather and surf forecasts, photos, games, and a glossary. Also available on the site are links to download full color brochures and signs on rip current safety.
If you have questions about any healthcare issue, contact the primary care providers at Coastal Carolina Health Care by calling (252) 633-4111 or visiting www.cchchealthcare.com.
(Sources: The American Red Cross; National Weather Service; U.S. Lifeguard Association; WWAY TV, LLC; National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration; Texas A&M Today; and Outside Magazine.)