As part of National Beach Safety Week, The Garden Island is running a series of safety articles to prevent drowning and promote safe, responsible beach outings. Today’s topic is rip currents, explained by beach safety week’s sponsor, the United States Lifesaving Association.
The USLA, which certifies lifeguards across the country, defines rip currents as powerful, channeled currents of water flowing away from shore. They typically extend from the shoreline, through the surf zone, and past the line of breaking waves. Rip currents can occur at any beach with breaking waves, including the Great Lakes.
These currents are formed by surf and gravity; once surf pushes water up the slope of the beach, gravity pulls it back, creating concentrated rivers of water moving offshore. The USLA says some mistakenly call this an undertow, but it’s actually an offshore current.
Rip currents can be killers, the USLA says, taking more than 100 lives each year on American beaches and accounting for more than 80 percent of all rescues performed by surf beach lifeguards.
The USLA recommends always swimming at beaches with lifeguards on duty, and says the chance of drowning at a beach protected by USLA- affiliated lifeguards is one in 18 million. If caught in a rip current at an unguarded beach, how you respond could make the difference between life and death.
The most important thing to remember is not to fight the current. Don’t try to swim directly to shore. Instead, swim parallel to shore until you feel the current relax, then head to shore. Most rip currents are narrow, so a short swim parallel to shore will bring you to safety.
The USLA, in partnership with NOAA’s National Weather Service and National Sea Grant Program, is trying to develop and improve the ability to predict the occurrence and strength of rip currents. The goal of the awareness campaign and research is to reduce the number of rip current-related fatalities.