Far more deadly than sharks, rip currents claim the lives of over a hundred seaside swimmers and waders every year. All too many of these unfortunate occurrences happen where local authorities have posted prominent signs warning of the danger. Although less common, rip currents also can surprise the unwary swimmer or wader near the shoreline of large lakes. The majority of lifeguard rescue efforts at public beaches involve rip current episodes.
Rip currents, often erroneously referred to as rip tides, occur under specific conditions of wind direction and wave movement, and the configuration of the adjacent beach and any underwater sand bars. The influence of the waves and wind on the beachside water often forces the water to move laterally along the shoreline in a large volume of dynamic strength. The moving water eventually finds an exit provided by a gap in an offshore sand bar and rushes back into the sea (or lake) in a powerful, concentrated surge of energy, often at a speed of five miles or more per hour. This causes an outflow of water that may mimic the torrent of a small river.
Despite this implacable feature of a rip current, a person may not realize the danger until he or she has inadvertently walked or swam into its entrapment. The appearance of the water in the vicinity of a rip current often can seem quite placid. Only when caught in the flow does the swimmer realize the peril. In an instant, the engulfing outflow of water captures the unwilling victim and sweeps the swimmer rapidly toward the open water of the ocean. The danger to the entrapped swimmer increases with the violence of the near reaches of the open water.
A swimmer caught in the powerful flow of a rip current may instinctively attempt to turn and swim against its force in an attempt to return to the safety of the sandy beach. More often than not this strategy will prove an error in judgment, perhaps a lethal mistake. Only an extremely powerful and practiced swimmer should attempt to swim directly against the surge of a strong rip current. At best, the effort will only result in the swimmer being inexorably pushed back into the sea; at worst, the swimmer may tire and find it impossible not only to battle the rip current tide, but to remain afloat.
If you should become caught in a rip current you have two basic options that will lead to extrication from its grasp:
1. Relax and assume a floating mode or calmly tread water, letting the rip current carry you seaward. At some point the rip current’s strength will dwindle, permitting you to swim horizontally to its direction of movement to safety.
2. Swim with the flow, angling to the right or left of its movement. As the rip current loses force at its edge, swim more directly away from it to calmer water.