The idea of swimming in the ocean as a recreational activity is relatively new, only about 100 years old. During this time, man has learned that there are dangers lurking under the waves, like sharks and jellyfish. But there’s nothing so dangerous to the casual ocean swimmer than a rip current. Each year in the U.S., about 100 people are sucked out to sea and are drown because of rip currents, and according to the U.S. Lifeguard Association, around 50,000 people a year are saved from rip currents. To avoid being a victim of Poseidon’s deadly grip, there are methods you need to know on how to survive a rip current.
Rip Tide vs. Rip Current
Most people use rip tide and rip current synonymously, but they are very different. A rip tide is a strong off-shore current that is affected by the tide, weather, and location. Rip tides typically are when the tide recedes from a narrow inlet and swiftly draws water back into the ocean. It is more of a threat to boating than it is to near-shore swimmers. A rip current, on the other hand, is water swiftly flowing away from the shore because of a break in a sand bar or from the effects of the waves.
Recognizing a Rip Current
Rip currents are very common and are found at most beaches. Before going in the water, observe the motion of the waves as they hit the shore. If they are at an angle, the likelihood of a rip current is lower (but not zero), but if the waves strike perpendicular to the shore, they create “longshore currents.” After the wave crashes, the water needs to flow back into the ocean, and while some of it travels under the wave, most of the water goes to the left and the right of the wave. When two longshore currents collide, the water rushing back to the ocean creates a rip current.
One of the best visual identifiers of a rip current is to see gaps between the waves. The calm gap may look safe, but that is where a rip current is hiding. Look for discolored water, as a rip current usually dredges up sand from the bottom. The National Weather Service (link: https://www.weather.gov/safety/ripcurrent-forecasts) operates a Surf Zone Forecast page that monitors rip currents around the country. Before swimming in the ocean, check out the forecasts online for your area.
How To Survive A Rip Current
Drowning from a rip current is a completely preventable accident if you start by taking precautions. Only swim when a lifeguard is present. Check the weather conditions, the surf reports, and make note of any warning flags posted on the beach. Rip currents often form on calm, sunny days, as the ocean can be affected by storms hundreds of miles away.
If you find yourself in a rip current that is swiftly carrying you away from the shore, the main thing to remember is to stay calm and don’t panic. Know that a rip current will not pull you under the water (provided you can swim), but the feeling of being pulled out to sea can be unnerving. It is a myth that a rip current will pull you out to sea and you’ll be forever lost.
Strange Water Ahead
That is not true. In fact, according to research done by Robert Anthony Dalrymple, a rip current scientist at Johns Hopkins University, a rip current is part of a “closed-loop” system. He claims that if you float along with the rip current long enough, it will eventually return you to shore. If caught in a rip current, relax your body, float with the current, and keep face the shoreline so you don’t get disoriented. You cannot outswim a rip current, and you will only use up your energy if you try.
Instead, swim parallel to the shoreline. Since rip currents pull water away from the beach, perpendicular to the shore, swimming parallel means you will eventually swim out of the current and into calmer waters. A rip current is a very narrow channel of water, so swimming out of it, instead of against it, is quite easy. At that point, swim directly to the shore. If the rip current has pulled you out so far that you fear you won’t have energy or strength to swim back in, don’t be afraid to call for help. Wave your arms and yell “help,” and hopefully someone will come to your rescue.
Ready For Rescue
It is difficult to watch a friend or loved one be torn away from the beach in a rip current. The best course of action for you on the beach is to stay calm. Do not immediately jump in the water after them; often would-be rescuers end up drowning themselves. Instead, keep an eye on the victim and instruct them to start the self-rescue procedure of swimming parallel to the shore. If possible, throw them a floatation device. Contact a lifeguard for assistance or dial 911 for emergency help.
When heading out for a swim in the ocean, it is important to know the warning signs of a rip current and to take precautions before your toes hit the water. Rip currents can be deadly, but they don’t have to be if you know what to do.