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June 10, 2010 / Dave Gorham

Rip Current Awareness Week . . . What You Should Know

One of my favorite things to do during the summer is to plan a trip to the beach. To me there’s nothing better than the smell of the ocean and a relaxing day laying out on the sand and going for a swim. Although there are definitely some things all beach goers must know about before heading out into the water this summer and one of those is rip currents.

Have you ever been to the beach and wondered what the colors of the flags stand for? These flags are put out in various locations to make beachgoers aware of the sea conditions for the day. A red flag stands for a high hazard for high surf and/or strong currents, whereas a green flag stands for low hazards and calm sea conditions.



Image: National Weather Service

 Rip currents are powerful, channeled currents of water that run perpendicular to the beach and back out into the ocean. They can occur at any beach with breaking waves, but it’s not just a salt water threat; seas and large lakes such as the Great Lakes can have rip currents. They can be extremely dangerous, dragging swimmers away from the beach. Death by drowning comes following exhaustion from fighting the current. This is Rip Current Awareness Week and I just wanted to share with you a few things you may or may not have known about them.

According to the United States Lifesaving Association, over 100 people each year are killed by rip currents. They also account for over 80% of rescues performed by surf beach lifeguards. Not many people recognize the danger of rip currents.

Here are some Rip Current Safety Tips everyone should follow:

When at the beach: 

  • Whenever possible, swim at a lifeguard-protected beach.
  • Never swim alone.
  • Learn how to swim in the surf.  It’s not the same as swimming in a pool or lake.
  • Be cautious at all times, especially when swimming at unguarded beaches. If in doubt, don’t go out.
  • Obey all instructions and orders from lifeguards. Lifeguards are trained to identify potential hazards. Ask a lifeguard about the conditions before entering the water. This is part of their job.
  • Stay at least 100 feet away from piers and jetties. Permanent rip currents often exist alongside these structures.
  • Consider using polarized sunglasses when at the beach. They will help you to spot signatures of rip currents by cutting down glare and reflected sunlight off the ocean’s surface.
  • Pay especially close attention to children and elderly when at the beach. Even in shallow water, wave action can cause loss of footing.

If caught in a rip current: 

  • Remain calm to conserve energy and think clearly.
  • Never fight against the current.
  • Think of it like a treadmill that cannot be turned off, which you need to step to the side of.
  • Swim out of the current in a direction following the shoreline. When out of the current, swim at an angle – away from the current – towards shore.
  • If you are unable to swim out of the rip current, float or calmly tread water. When out of the current, swim towards shore.
  • If you are still unable to reach shore, draw attention to yourself by waving your arms and yelling for help.

If you see someone in trouble, don’t become a victim, too: 

  • Get help from a lifeguard.
  • If a lifeguard is not available, have someone call 9-1-1.
  • Throw the rip current victim something that floats-a lifejacket, a cooler, an inflatable ball.
  • Yell instructions on how to escape.
  • Remember, many people drown while trying to save someone else from a rip current.

If you’d like more information about a specific area you plan on visiting this summer, several National Weather Service offices issue Surf Zone Forecasts which provide a daily outlook for rip currents. Click on the blue link provided for the current forecast for various coastal areas. Before heading to the beach this summer, take some time to understand rip currents and how you can protect yourself and loved ones.


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