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Learn to Spot (and Survive) Dangerous Rip Currents

National Rip Current Awareness Week is June 3-9

School ends this week for most children in our area and that means more weekend trips to the beach to enjoy the sand and waves. On these trips parents always make sure to pack plenty of sunscreen, water, snacks, and a few extra towels—we don’t want anyone sunburned, dehydrated, hungry, or wet and sandy. Parents may think they’ve properly prepared for a day on the beach, but there’s a huge risk most never consider: Rip currents.

Scary Numbers

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.

North Carolina ranks #4 when it comes to rip current deaths: 24 people lost their lives on its shores from 2014 to 2017. 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, says, “We’ve shown photographs to people and asked them to spot where the rip current is and almost no one correctly identifies the location. I 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.

Rip currents can form at any beach with breaking waves (including the Great Lakes). The speed of a rip current can exceed 6 miles per hour (faster than an Olympic swimmer) and can extend the length of a football field off the coast. Swimmers usually don’t realize it’s there until they find themselves in its clutches. Swimmers often (and wrongly) 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.

Learn to Spot a Rip Current

Tom Pahl, a resident of Ocracoke Island, has helped several swimmers out of dangerous rip current conditions. In fact, he told the Ocracoke Observer he now carries a boogie board in his truck to be better prepared for future emergencies. Pahl urges all beach-goers to carefully observe the water before venturing in: “Take time to assess the conditions before you go in and, if there’s any doubt, keep your feet on the bottom, keep your feet on the ground.”

A couple of years ago Pahl decided to write down a few observations he’s made about identifying the danger signs that accompany rip currents in the hope they can help swimmers along North Carolina shores. Perhaps these tips can help you as well:

Good wave patterns:

  • Waves approach and break parallel to shore.
  • Waves come in at a steady pace.
  • Waves are spread apart by an even distance.
  • Waves break on the far sandbar, re-form, and break again on shore.
  • Bottom is smooth and deepens at a steady rate.

Dangerous wave patterns:

  • Waves approach at an angle to shore.
  • Waves approach from two angles and criss-cross.
  • Waves approach at different speeds and overtake each other.
  • “Far sandbar” is close in, creating a “lagoon” at water’s edge.
  • Bottom is “hilly,” rising and falling unpredictably.

Take time to assess the conditions before you enter the ocean. If you have any doubt at all, keep your feet the sand at all times.

What to Do If You Find Yourself Trapped

If you happen to find yourself in a rip current, the National Weather Service recommends taking the following steps:

  1. Don’t fight the current. It’s too fast and you’ll only tire yourself out.
  2. Try to relax and float to save your energy. Remember, the current will not pull you underwater.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.

Take a look at this two-minute video from the American Red Cross for more tips to deal with rip currents.

Please take this important information to heart. Most importantly, share with your children ways to spot rip currents and what to do if they find themselves caught up in one. Let’s all do what we can to keep everyone safe at the beach this summer.

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

(Sources: The American Red Cross; National Weather Service; U.S. Lifeguard Association; Ocracoke Observer, LLC; National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration; The Weather Channel; Texas A&M Today; and Outside Magazine.)