Living in a coastal region brings abundant joy. I feel blessed in my grandfatherly years to be just a 7 minutes’ drive from the great Atlantic. My wife and I enjoyed this benefit again at the conclusion of the Independence Day weekend by having a fine seafood dinner overlooking the ocean waves, sea birds diving for their own meals, and all under a brilliantly blue sky.
One of the saddest aspects of beach life is reading or watching all-too-frequent media accounts of people who have drowned in the nearby Atlantic – sometimes kids, sometimes older folks trying to do more than their bodies are capable of doing, sometimes brave folks trying to rescue others, and often people who are here on vacation. No, these horrible incidents don’t happen all that often in a statistical sense, given that millions of people visit the Grand Strand beaches every year and enjoy themselves. But each drowning is a tragedy. You think of families here on long-awaited vacations, and suddenly a loved one has perished on what more than likely was expected to be a recreational swim.
Rip currents are the most dangerous snare that can put swimmers in deep trouble from which too many do not know how to escape. According to the United States Lifesaving Association (USLA), the annual number of deaths attributable to rip currents at our nation’s beaches exceeds 100. More than 80 percent of rescues performed by surf-beach lifeguards are of swimmers caught in rip currents.
What are rip currents? This is how the USLA describes them: “Rip currents are powerful, channeled currents of water flowing away from shore. They typically extend from the shoreline, through the surf zone, and past the line of breaking waves. Rip currents can occur at any beach with breaking waves, including the Great Lakes.”
Think of large waves traveling from deep to shallow water. As they reach the shoreline, they may break strongly in one place and weakly in another, an imbalance that can stir narrow channels of rapidly moving water circulating back offshore. While most rip currents achieve speeds of 1-2 feet per second, some have been recorded as strong and fast as 8 feet per second – a clip faster than any Olympic swimmer can achieve. Thus, rip currents can sweep even the strongest swimmers out a considerable distance from shore. They can occur at any surf beach at any time, but are typically most dangerous during conditions of high surf.
Often rip currents form near breaks in sandbars, or near such structures as groins, jetties, and piers. They can be quite narrow or they can be hundreds of yards in width. As for the seaward pull they exert, that can vary from just beyond the line of breaking waves to hundreds of yards offshore (which obviously can be quite scary).
If you are ever caught in one, I think the most important advice is: DON’T PANIC.
Basically, as the UFLA advises, go with the flow to conserve energy and collect your thoughts. Trying directly to fight this powerful current and swim right back in can be the worst thing to do. Calmly attempt to swim out of the current by heading in a direction parallel to the shore. Once you are out of the rip current, then you can swim back to shore.
If you find yourself still unable to swim out of the current, then relax and float or tread water. When the current diminishes, then swim back to shore. If you still feel you are unable to reach shore, face the shore, draw attention to yourself, and yell for help. I would add: Remain calm, don’t panic. This is salt water; you can float if you don’t thrash and flail away. It is a myth, notes USLA, that there is an undertow. Rip currents do not pull people under the water --- instead they simply pull people away from shore. “Drowning deaths occur when people pulled offshore are unable to keep themselves afloat and swim to shore. This may be due to any combination of fear, panic, exhaustion, or lack of swimming skills.”
Number one on my list of ways to keep yourself from becoming a victim when coming to the beach to enjoy the water would be:
Learn how to swim before you come, and practice til you are a strong swimmer.
And then No. 2:
Even if you are a strong swimmer, respect the awesome power of the ocean and don’t be over-confident. Swim at lifeguard-protected beaches, if at all possible. In any event, never swim alone.
In my youth, I did quite a bit of ocean swimming. I am more cautious in my senior years. We also have sharks to take into account, but that will be a subject for another day.
© Robert G. Holland 2013