Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Protect Yourself from Rip Current Dangers

You think about many things when going to the beach— sunscreen, chairs and the perfect parking spot. But you may not think about one of the most dangerous things about swimming in the ocean - rip currents.

Rip currents form when a low spot or break develops in a sandbar close to shore. This forces ocean water through a narrow opening out to sea and creates a channel of water flowing away from shore that can extend hundreds of yards offshore. Rip currents can occur any time at the beach but are most dangerous during high surf and high wave conditions.

Rip current at Carolina Beach, NC Photo courtesy of NOAA,
via Carolina Beach Police Department

Rip currents are the leading surf hazard for beach goers, particularly dangerous for weak or non-swimmers. Their speed is generally one to two feet per second but water speeds can reach as high as eight feet per second - faster than an Olympic swimmer can sprint. More than 100 drownings a year occur in the United States due to rip currents. Rip currents are also the cause of the majority of water rescues.

Rip currents can be tricky to spot on the beach. Here are a few things to look for:
  • A channel of churning, choppy water moving perpendicular from shore
  • An area of light, sandy color water different from the surrounding ocean water
  • Sea foam or debris moving steadily out to sea 
  • A break in the incoming wave pattern

photo credit: NOAA
 If caught in a rip current, keep these things in mind:
  • Don’t Panic. Remain calm to help you think clearly and conserve energy.
  • Don’t fight the current. Swim out of the current in a direction parallel to shore. Once out of the current’s pull, start to swim towards the shore.
  • Draw Attention. If you are unable to reach shore, draw attention to yourself so lifeguards and other beachgoers will spot you. Face shore, wave your arms and yell for help. If you are at the beach and notice someone in trouble, notify a lifeguard or call 911. Try throwing something that floats to the victim and yell instructions on how to escape the current. Do not try to rescue the person yourself. Many people drown attempting to save someone else.

Another useful tool to guard against rip current dangers are warning flags often flown by lifeguards. Different colors communicate rip current risk to swimmers. Observe the flag warnings and swim where lifeguard patrol the beaches.
  • Green means low risk.
  • Yellow indicates a moderate risk. Weak swimmers are discouraged from entering the water. 
  • Red warns of a high rip current risk with high wave and surf action. This category implies all swimming in the surf is life threatening.

Before visiting the beach check out the local National Weather Service website for rip current risks. In southeastern North Carolina, the NWS office out of Moorhead City prepares a map to highlight the rip current risk for our area.

To learn more about rip currents, visit the National Oceanographic Atmosphere Administration’s rip current overview siteHere you will find videos, games and more information about rip currents. 

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