This year’s storm season and the fairly persistent east winds have created dangerous rip currents along Florida’s First Coast. The term “rip current” is now used in place of older names like “rip tide” and “runout.” What is a rip current? From the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), “Rip currents are currents of water flowing away from the shore at surf beaches. They typically extend from near the shoreline, through the surf zone and past the line of breaking waves.” The surf zone is the area from the high tide level on the beach to the seaward side of breaking waves.
Rip currents can vary in size and in strength. It is often impossible to see if a rip current is present at the beach. This is one of the reasons that they can be so dangerous. Lifeguards are trained to recognize rip currents. It is safest to swim at beaches that have lifeguards. Look for posted signs and warning flags, which may indicate higher than usual hazards. These hazards can include dangerous surf, rip currents, and dangerous marine life. Be cautious. Always assume rip currents are present even if you don’t see them.
Swimmers who are caught in a rip current will find themselves being pulled away from the shore towards the open ocean. Their first reaction is usually to try and swim back to shore. However, the rip current can be much stronger than even the most experienced swimmer.
If you find yourself being dragged offshore
If you find yourself being pulled by a rip current, NOAA recommends the following:
- Don’t fight the current. It’s a natural treadmill that travels an average speed of 1-2 feet per second, but has been measured as fast as 8 feet per second—faster than an Olympic swimmer.
- Relax and float to conserve energy. Staying calm may save your life.
- Do NOT try to swim directly into to shore. Swim along the shoreline until you escape the current’s pull. When free from the pull of the current, swim at an angle away from the current toward shore.
- If you feel you can’t reach shore, relax, face the shore, and call or wave for help. Remember: If in doubt, don’t go out!
How to help someone who is caught in a rip current
If you see someone who is caught in a rip current, alert the closest lifeguard or call 9-1-1. If you can, throw the rip current victim something that floats—a lifejacket, cooler, beach ball, float, etc. Yell to the victim to swim parallel to shore until they escape the pull. Many would-be rescuers have drowned trying to help others. Don’t become a victim while trying to help someone else!
To learn more about rip currents, visit http://www.ripcurrents.noaa.gov/.