Rip Current Awareness and Safety Measures

After months of cold temperatures and nearly (over?) a year of cancelled trips and vacations, many are itching to plan their summer getaways as hours of daylight grow longer, vaccine distributions increase, and restrictions are lifted. If your plans include a trip to the beach, it’s important to remember safety – and not just sun block!

In this blog last summer, we discussed how although heat is the number one weather-related killer in the United States, the leading cause of weather-related fatalities varies widely across different areas of the United States. In certain regions of the US (such as portions of the coastlines along the northern Gulf Coast, the Great Lakes, the Mid-Atlantic, and California), another sneaky danger lurks, leading to the primary cause of weather-related deaths. Rip currents.

Rip currents are powerful, narrow channels of water that flow away from the beach. They typically extend from near the shoreline out through the breaker zone where breaking waves form. The National Weather Service (NWS) in Mobile, Alabama uses the analogy of a rip current acting as a natural treadmill traveling away from the beach, which can reach speeds as fast as 8 feet per second – faster than an Olympic swimmer! This is why rip currents are so dangerous; they can sweep even the strongest swimmers out to sea. Further, they can (and do!) occur on clear, sunny days.

This alone can make rip currents even more dangerous, as people are less likely to check the forecast when it looks and feels so nice out. However, great beach weather doesn’t always equate to safety while swimming and playing in the ocean. Staying safe at the beach means knowing the dangers BEFORE you head out. Fortunately, NWS Meteorologists routinely provide daily rip current forecasts for local beaches via their “Surf Zone Forecast” (SRF) product. The National Weather Service also has a dedicated beach webpage (weather.gov/beach) that you can visit to retrieve beach forecasts and learn more about how to stay safe from common beach hazards.

KNOW BEFORE YOU GO

In addition to checking the local beach forecast ahead of time, familiarize yourself with beach warning signs and flags (often located near the lifeguard stand). If you’re having trouble finding or understanding the signs, ask a lifeguard and always swim near them. Use extra caution and always bring flotation when swimming at beaches without lifeguards. If there is any doubt whether there is a rip current, avoid swimming.

How To Spot A Rip Current

  • Water Texture – Rip currents are often found in areas where waves are *not* breaking. The flat water located between breaking waves is actually a rip current flowing away from the beach out to sea.
  • Water Color – The water is often darker in a rip current. White foam is present where waves are breaking and there are no rip currents.
  • Water Movement – Look for a line of foam, seaweed, or debris moving away from the beach.
Drone footage of a rip current at Wrightsville Beach. Discoloration of the water can be seen showing the location of the rip current. Three people are seen moved away from shore by the current, and attempt to swim against the current without luck. A lifeguard is seen making a rescue towards the end, having the swimmers grab flotation device before moving them out of the current in order to swim back to shore.

How To Survive A Rip Current

Rip currents account for approximately 80% of beach rescues, and they can be deadly if you don’t know what to do. First and foremost – don’t panic! Rip currents will not pull you under the water. STAY CALM. Wave and yell to get the attentions of a lifeguard. If you are a good swimmer, swim parallel to the beach until you clear the pull of the rip current. Not a skilled swimmer? Relax and flip on your back to float (floating conserves your energy). Always wave and yell to get the attention of the lifeguards. REMEMBER – Don’t fight the rip current. Instead, swim left or right. Don’t swim near jetties, swim with a buddy, and swim near a lifeguard. The chance of drowning at a beach protected by USLA affiliated lifeguards is 1 in 18 million! If you see someone caught in a rip current, do not go in after the – call for help. If no lifeguard is available, throw them something that floats, but do NOT try to make the rescue yourself. Remember, even lifeguards only attempt a rip current rescue using a flotation device.

Additional Safety Resources:

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