Professional Ocean Lifeguards from around the world can agree that rip currents (also referred to as rip tides, undertows and rips), are the primary causes of drowning along populated beaches. A rip current is defined as an area in the surf zone where ocean currents turn and move away from shore, heading out to sea. These rips can become very dangerous for swimmers; if they are to become trapped, it will slowly pull them out to sea. This guide offers instructions on how to safely exit and identify rip currents.
To insure a safe and fun day of swimming at the beach, a beachgoer must learn to quickly identify rip currents. Surfers will regularly locate rip currents so that they can use the pull of the rip as a faster way to get through the waves. There are certain indicators to look for in order to locate a rip.
The first thing to look for is churning and brown water. A rip current is usually as wide as a swimming pool, so the part that is flowing out to sea is churning up the sand on the way out, making it brown. The brown, sandy water will look different when compared to an area with no rip current.
The second indicator of a rip current is that it is far deeper in a rip than in other spots of the ocean. This is because the fast water that is flowing out to sea in the rip, is creating a deep underwater trench. There is no way to look through the water and physically see that it is deeper in one area than another. The way surfers and lifeguards determine where deep spots are is by watching the oncoming waves. When a wave enters a spot where the rip current is, it will enter the deep water and as a result the wave will flatten out and not break.
The third indicator of a rip current can be objects such as piers, jetties, cliffs, and out-coves, that are build along beaches. Whenever a person comes along one of theses objects, they can assume that directly next to it, on either side, is a rip current. The reason for this is that ocean currents will generally move sideways down a beach. Meaning, that when you jump in the water you will end up down the beach a ways. When the current moves along the beach and then it abruptly runs into a jetty or pier, the current bounces off of the object and heads straight out to sea. Swimming next to jetties and piers is almost always discouraged.
Now that we are prepared with the knowledge to locate a rip current, here are some instructions on how to safely exit a rip current. When stuck in a rip current it is important not to swim to shore against the flow of the rip. In identifying tip number two, it is stated that most rip currents are no wider than a swimming pool, so swimming consistently parallel to shore can be the best way to exit the rip current. When informing others of the dangers of rips, I often compare a rip current to an escalator that is going downstairs. If you try and go the wrong way on the escalator, you will keep on walking until you get tired and give up, never making any progress. It is also important to understand that the water in a rip current is typically deeper than in the surrounding areas, so attempting to jump off the bottom can often be worse than simply swimming sideways, and then in.
Rip currents can be our enemies and our friends. A surfer does not simply get pummeled on his/her way through the surf line. Rather, they dive under the waves and paddle in rip currents to assist them to where they need to go. Understanding these dangerous currents can change the entire way that one views the ocean.
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