The allure of sun, sand and the ocean are synonymous with summer.
The beach can provide us with a calm, peaceful retreat,
playful childhood memories or an adventurous outing.
Beaches are living, constantly changing ecosystems,
but a simple shift in wind direction can transform tranquil lapping waves into a roaring intense surf.
When the waves get large and a surf forms, strong rip currents will forms as well,
creating dangerous conditions for swimmers.
As waves crash onto the shore, their natural motion is to retreat back to the ocean.
Waves travel in circular motions.
However, sometimes natural man-made and natural barriers, like piers and sandbars,
block the seaward motion of the waves. The trapped water forms a current that flows along the shore,
searching for a break in the barrier. When this break occurs, the constricted current flows quickly
seaward. This fast moving seaward current is called a rip current.
People caught in rip currents often panic and try to swim against the current.
With an average speed of 1-2 meters/second,
these attempts can result with life threatening and sometimes fatal consequences.
“I didn’t know if I was actually going to make it back to the beach.”
“It was a danger day, but it was a sunny danger day and that is a very bad combination.”
“This is the first time I’ve been back. It’s not so much that I am afraid
of the beach, I just didn’t want to walk over the stairs and see where
we were and have it all come back. There were a lot of waves on the beach that day,
but we’d swam in large waves before so we thought it was no big deal.”
“We were advising people not to go in the supervised area.”
“We tried to swim back in and we realized that we were not getting anywhere.”
“It became pretty clear that they were in trouble.”
“I knew about rip currents, but I thought I was a strong swimmer and I thought that I could get out of it.”
“It’s like swimming on a treadmill, you don’t get anywhere, in fact you move backwards.”
“I turned around to my boyfriend and I asked him if he could get out and he couldn’t either.
He’s two years in the Navy and he's a really strong swimmer and he's a really big guy and
I figured that he could fight through anything. “
“Initially I was excited at the chance for a rescue, that's always kind of an exciting time, but once we got into
the water and saw how dangerous is was it was more..I got a little anxious
wondering if we could actually get these people in.
There was actually a point out there where we thought maybe we weren't sure we could really do this.”
“The waves were getting really bad and we were starting to lose a lot of energy.
I kept going under the water and the waves kept coming over my head.”
“They were actually surprised at the strength of the water I think.”
“A lot of panic coming from these people...”
“They were convinced that they were going to die.”
“So four of us took a rescue can and the other guard took the rescue board
which was really helpful in this rescue.”
“When you are actually in it you don’t think of anything but
I've gotta get right back to that beach.”
“They try to swim straight in, because the only thing in their mind is to get into shore.”
Where as if you swim out of it, to the side, along the beach, and then in,
you are wasting a lot less energy and you are out of that current that is pulling you out.”
Look for an area where maybe you see crashing waves and you know
that there isn’t a current ripping out and swim in that direction.”
I was relieved and amazed that I was even back on land
and in retrospect I should have swam sideways and tried to get out that way.”
Talk to your surfguards, they should be able to tell you where rip currents are located,
the safest areas that you can swim in and give them tips on what to do if something happens.
“...because I have this experience now, I probably won’t freak out as much.
I’ll be able to use my logic and remember what I know, and
how to swim and if nothing else to wait it out.”
Carolyn’s story had a happy ending, but for over 100 people every year in North America
this is not the case. Increasing public awareness of rip currents can prevent
events like this from occurring at all.
One of the myths about rip currents is that they are the same as undertows or rip tides.
A rip current will not pull you underwater; they are narrow, strong currents that pull you away from shore.
Not all rip currents look the same. Although some are well formed, most are unstable and difficult
the average person to see. Some cues you can look for are the color of the water and variations in wave patterns.
Since rip currents create a channel of water, the water may appear darker in color.
It may also be demarked with churned up sand, foam or debris moving in a seaward direction.
The channels are generally narrow, less than 10 meters wide.
Wave shapes or breaking points are different in rip currents. Look for variations in wave patterns,
such as choppy water, leading to a plume beyond the breakers or sandbars.
Be careful of areas of calm water amidst the surf.
The unassuming calm water may lure people to swim there but the calm water likely represents
deep rip currents and can be very dangerous.
Since visual cues are not easily identifiable, most people realize they are in a rip current
when they feel themselves being pulled along the shore or in a seaward direction.
Rip currents will often have long-shore or lateral currents that lead into the seaward rip current.
When you are knee deep in the water, ask yourself, do you feel the water pulling at you?
This can indicate that a rip current is nearby.
By getting to know your beaches, you can gain knowledge about where danger spots might develop.
Pay particular attention around man-made structures like piers and breakwaters where rip currents are prevalent.
The ocean floor and most notably, sandbars, contribute to rip currents as well.
Waves get trapped between the beach and the sandbars. Watch the sandbars as they form;
it is in the breaks between sandbars where that trapped water will escape and a rip current is born.
Be aware that rip currents can change from day to day and significantly alter after storm events.
If you find yourself caught in a rip current remember these key points to ‘breaking the grip of the rip’.
Don't panic and don't fight it. A rip current will not take you miles off shore.
The strength of the current will lessen the further away from the shore you are.
Some very strong rip currents may extend 300 meters off shore, but most will end just past the breaking waves.
A natural reaction when being pulled away from the shoreline is to swim towards it,
but this is where people get into trouble. Averaging in speed between 1-2 meters/second, any swimmer,
regardless of their strength, will tire easily in trying to swim against the rip.
Fatalities result when the tired swimmer no longer has the strength to swim.
Don’t swim against the current, stay calm and conserve your energy.
Swim out of the current in a direction following the shoreline,
when you are out of the current, then swim back to shore.
Remember, rip currents are narrow. Swimming parallel to shore takes a fraction of the energy needed to swim against a rip.
If you can’t swim out of the rip, just tread water.
When the current lessens, swim diagonally back to shore. If you can, try to get attention from shore.
If you witness someone in distress in the water, do not enter the water. Get help from a surfguard or call 9-1-1.
Throw them a life-ring or a floatable object to grasp a hold of. Keep in visual contact with them.
Remember, good intentioned bystanders often drown themselves trying to perform rescue.
Keep safe this summer by learning the warning signs of rip currents and listening to warnings from surfguards.
Before heading out to beach, learn about daily weather & surf conditions
Never swim alone. Use supervised swimming areas & learn more about rip currents from your local surfguards.
Remember, never swim against a rip, break the grip of the rip by swimming parallel to shore
and then swim back to the beach.
And... When in doubt, don’t go out!
“Every year we continue to have a couple of rescue days,
which just goes to show that there is a lot of education that needs to be done.”
“Respect the water and don't ever swim alone.”
Share this knowledge with your family & friends, and help us break the grip of the rip once and for all.