Rip Currents: Don’t Get Carried Away by Your Beach Adventure

Between the years 1994 through 2007 (inclusive), 480 people in the U.S. died from drowning by rip currents. Hundreds more suffered near drownings and required rescue. Nearly half (48%) of those drownings occurred in Florida, which has more than 2000 miles of shoreline and lots of beach-going days. But, there is more to rip currents than having lots of beachfront and lots of people. It’s the unique dynamics of rip current formation that can kill us, and our awareness of how to respond that can help us save ourselves.

Rip current conditions can arise any time of the day, any time of the year. Rips occur in conjunction with sustained strong onshore wind flow (generally 25 mph or greater) that is perpendicular (or nearly so) to the coastline. This wind flow carries oceanic water shoreward and, essentially, piles it up to where hydrodynamics forces it to create a return flow. That seaward flow is the rip current, and its flow (two meters per second or more) is too strong to overcome, even for the most skilled of swimmers.

Escaping from a rip current involves: 1) recognition, 2 knowledge, and 3) action. First, you must recognize that you are caught in the rip current. You will notice yourself quickly pulling away from the beach and unable to swim again the current. Second, have the knowledge about what to do to escape the rip current. THIS IS VITAL: the rip current is a relatively narrow channel, only 30 to 90 feet wide. Swimming parallel to the shore instead of fighting the current will take you out of the rip. Most rip current fatalities are those who drowned from exhaustion while trying to swim against its flow. Third, take action. Move quickly and decisively parallel to the coast, then once you feel the rip abate swim back to shore or call for help.

Rip current conditions are routinely forecast by the National Weather Service, which issues Advisories on days when rips are anticipated. Rip currents can be spotted visually as an area where the surf is not breaking. Lifeguards are trained to be aware of such conditions, and so should should you. The life you save may be your own.