How to Identify a Rip Current

The federal government is marking Rip Current Awareness Week.

It's national Rip Current Awareness Week, and with ocean water temperatures already in the mid-60s, air temperatures forecast to reach the 80s this weekend, rip currents could prove problematic along ocean beaches, many of which remain unguarded.

"Each year, America’s beach lifeguards rescue more than 50,000 swimmers from rip currents,” said B. Chris Brewster, president of the United States Lifesaving Association, in a statement this week. "Swimming at a guarded beach can reduce your chances of drowning to 1 in 18 million."

But at many beaches, lifeguards aren't posted on duty for another couple of weeks, effectively placing the safety burden on bathers who choose to enter unguarded waters.

Rip currents, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, are narrow channels of fast-moving water that pull swimmers away from the shore. They can occur any time, in fair or foul weather, on breezy days and calm days and at high tide or low tide.

In an average year, more than 100 Americans lose their lives after being dragged out to sea in rip currents, though last year the number of deaths totaled 41, figures compiled by NOAA show.

Besides making sure to swim at a guarded beach, being able to identify where rip currents are occurring—and avoiding those areas—is the best bet to ensure one's safety.

A photo illustration provided by NOAA (attached to this article) shows an example of a rip current at an ocean beach. Breaking waves are seen being interrupted by the flow of the current, which makes a clear path out to sea. In other NOAA photographs (also attached), rip currents are seen having a clearly-identifiable lighter water coloration than the surrounding water.

Experts advise against swimming near jetties or piers where there are fixed rip currents, and recommend only strong swimmers swim in a large body of water that is subject to changing wind, waves and currents.

Of course, swimming only at guarded beaches is the best way to avoid losing one's life in the ocean, statistics show.

If you find yourself caught in a rip current, the United States Lifesaving Association says to follow a number of steps to escape:

  • Yell for help immediately.
  • Don’t swim against the rip current—it will just tire you out.
  • Escape the rip current by swimming parallel to the beach until you are free.
  • If you are unable to swim out of the rip current, float or calmly tread water.
  • When out of the current, swim toward the shore at an angle away from the rip current.

Finally, those heading to the beach for the day should check the NOAA's surf zone forecast for the Shore area, which is often updated multiple times per day at the National Weather Service website.  


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