A version of this story first appeared at Coast Guard Great Lakes and was written by Petty Officer 3rd Class Christopher Yaw.
Sunny days, fresh water, sandy beaches; all of these could be used to describe summer on the water. It’s the time of year when the snowsuits go into storage and the swimsuits come out. Every year, however, rip currents continue to claim lives on America’s beaches.
What’s a rip current?
Knowing what a rip current is and how they form is the first step to staying safe out on the water, no matter what beach you may find yourself on.
Rip currents are channeled currents of water flowing away from shore at surf beaches. Typically, they extend from near the shoreline, through the surf zone and past the line of breaking waves. The surf zone is the area between the high water level on the beach to the seaward side of the breaking waves.
They form when waves break near the shoreline, piling up water between the breaking waves and the beach. One of the ways this water returns to the lake is to form a rip current, a narrow stream of water moving swiftly away from shore, often perpendicular to shore.
How do I spot a rip current?
Signs that a rip current is present can be difficult for the average person to detect. Looking for differences in water color, water motion, a break in the incoming wave pattern or a line of foam, seaweed or debris moving steadily seaward can help to detect a rip current. One, all or none of the clues may be visible.
Rip currents can vary greatly in width. They can be as narrow as 10 or 20 feet, though they may be up to ten times wider. The length of rip currents also varies. Most often, they begin to slow down as they move offshore. Sometimes, however, they can extend for hundreds of feet beyond the surf zone.
What do I do if I’m caught in one?
If suddenly your day of fun in the sun turns south and you find yourself in a rip current, you’ll want to think of a rip current like a treadmill that doesn’t have an off button; you want to step to the side of it to get out. The key is to remain calm and remember to not fight the current. Once you get out of the current, swim at an angle away from the current and toward shore.
In the event you can’t escape, try to float or calmly tread water. Rip current strength eventually subsides offshore. When it does, swim toward shore. If you feel you’ll be unable to reach shore, draw attention to yourself: face the shore, wave your arms and yell for help.
If you see someone else caught in a rip current get help from a lifeguard and have someone call 911. Throw the rip current victim something that floats – a life jacket, a cooler, a ball. Doing so can help keep him calm and conserve energy. Whatever you do, don’t become a victim yourself. Many would-be rescuers have died trying to help someone else.