Rip Current – may look innocent but can be deadly

Polling beachgoers on what they fear most in the seawater almost always comes back with the standard response of ‘sharks’. Very few would cite rip currents; only a fraction of that would know how to deal or even identify rip currents.

Statistics are staggering. On average 100+ people drown every year in rip currents within the US itself. In comparison, the average death count due to shark attacks is 1 person per year. Rip currents account for over 80% of the rescues performed by surf beach lifeguards.

Formation of rip currents is a natural phenomenon. We cannot stop the generation of rip current, but we can acknowledge its power, know how to recognize it, and learn how to deal with it. I would highly recommend my readers to visit NOAA’s National Weather Services’ educational website for details on rip current, and would also urge my readers to spread the word. Awareness is key!

As the waves move from deep waters to the shore, they are broken by sandbars, strongly at some places and weakly at some places. Breaking waves result in ‘pileup’ of water on the beach that eventually needs to retreat seaward (gravity comes into play!). The water would follow the path of least resistance that can either be shallow spots or break in sandbars. This might result in a concentrated flow of water returning to the deeper waters – giving rise to rip currents.

rip_current-no-head
Source: http://www.ripcurrents.noaa.gov

It might be difficult for untrained eyes to easily spot the rips currents, but there are some indicators one should look out for. The rip current normally has a different color than the surrounding water, it is murkier due to floating seaweeds, foams, and debris; darker; a gap in breaking waves; and choppy and churning surface.

If ever caught by a rip current, stay calm and do not fight it. Remember, rip current is a horizontal current – pulls the swimmer away from the shore and not downward. In order to escape it, swim parallel to the shore until out of the current and then swim towards the shore. If unable to break out of the current, tread water and float along the current until it subsides and then swim away from the current and towards the shore. The drowning happens when one is unable to keep afloat either due to panic, exhaustion, or inability to tread water or float.

The speed of the rip current is typically 1-2 feet per second, but can be as high as 8 feet per second, faster than any Olympic swimmer, and strong enough to sweep the strongest of swimmers!

– Meghna Sil