September is a beautiful time to go down the shore. Cool breezes, warm ocean temps and crystal blue skies lure many off-season visitors to the sand and surf, especially with the promise of a peaceful dip in the sea without having to dodge wayward boogie-boarders. But September is also the peak of hurricane season when hazardous surf conditions can arise, even on sunny blue sky days when danger does not seem apparent. Rip currents are especially threatening to beach-goers at any time of year, but are certainly more prevalent when storms bring strong winds and sea surge. Regardless of when you go in the surf, it is important to arm yourself with knowledge about these dangerous currents so you and your family can avoid being caught in one.
What is a rip current?
A rip current is a narrow, fast-moving channel of water that rushes out to sea from the shoreline, passing through the surf zone and beyond the wave break. When waves crash on the shore they bring with them an enormous amount of water that, under normal circumstances, flows back to sea. But sometimes wind, water or other conditions can cause an overflow of water to come to shore and impede the water’s ability to flow back to sea as it normally does. The water must return to the sea somehow, so pressure builds until the trapped water becomes strong enough to overcome the incoming waves. It will find the path of least resistance by creating a channel of fast-moving water between a lull in wave action or through an opening in a sandbar. This is a rip current, and it can take anything or anyone with it as it rushes back to sea.
What causes rip currents to form?
Rip currents can develop from various conditions such as strong winds and storms that bring in a surge of water to the shoreline. They also form as the result of an obstacle that disrupts the flow of water along the beach, such as jetties, groins or even sandbars. They form at all times of the year but can be more prevalent during hurricane season and during tropical storms. Even when storms don’t make landfall around us, they can still create very dangerous surf conditions from hundreds of miles away. As a matter of fact, the Ocean City New Jersey Beach Patrol reported that they made 141 rip current rescues on one single day this summer as the result of Tropical Storm Chris which, at the time, was churning far off the Jersey Coast. It’s also important to know that rip currents can – and often do – form on beautiful days when water conditions appear to be perfect.
Why are rip currents dangerous?
Rip currents are cited as the leading danger for beachgoers. Approximately 100 people die in our country each year as the result of these currents. While rips will pull you out to sea, they will not pull you under. The danger of rip currents is their speed – typically they travel at 1-2 feet per second, but they can travel as fast as 8 feet per second. At those speeds even the strongest swimmers are not able to overcome them. The good news is that they do eventually end, often just beyond the wave break. At that point, the strong pull ceases and a person once caught in the current will be able to get out of it and swim back to shore, often with the assistance of the normal wave action. These currents can range in width from 10-200 feet, which means that most people who remain calm and know the rules of getting out of a rip current can “break the grip of the rip” by swimming to one side or another of the channeled current.
How do I recognize a rip current?
Rip currents can often, but not always, be detected by the naked eye. A rip current may churn up the sand and cause the water to appear to be cloudy, murky or discolored, or white and sudsy.
Additionally, a rip current can cause a break in the wave line. A general rule of thumb is that if there is a section of water that looks or behaves differently than the rest of the water, it is likely a rip current and should be avoided. But don’t rely solely on observation as they may not be apparent.
How can I avoid a rip current?
“When in doubt, don’t go out,” the experts say. Simply put, stay out of the water if any of the signals or warnings are present.
Before you head to the beach, pay attention to weather and news reports, especially during hurricane season which generally runs from June 1 – November 1. Remember that even faraway offshore storms can produce dangerous rip tides along the shore.
When you arrive at the beach, it is a good idea to observe the water behavior from a distance, such as from an elevated beach path. You should also look to the life guard stand to see if they are using the flag system – a green flag means low hazard and calm conditions, a yellow flag signals medium hazard with moderate surf or currents and a red flag warns of a high hazard with high surf and strong conditions. If the flag system is not being used, the best thing you can do is ask a lifeguard what is the likelihood of rip currents. They are experts in this area and can tell you if rips tend to develop in that location due to jetties or sand bars, if wind or wave conditions are ripe for the development, or if any have been spotted that day.
While we are on the subject of lifeguards, the best way to avoid getting caught in a rip current (other than staying out of the water) is to swim only in guarded areas, when lifeguards are on duty. The U.S. Lifeguarding Association estimates that 80% of all lifeguard rescues are for rip currents, which means they are not only well-equipped to assist people caught in these currents, but they also spend most of their life-saving resources on them. It is also important that you swim in front of the lifeguard, and watch your children when they are in the water.
How do I get out of a rip current?
The absolute first rule is to relax. “Keeping calm is what will save your life,” one expert put it. I know this is easier said than done, especially when you are being pulled out to sea. Yes, these currents are mighty and can travel at a high rate speed, but since you can’t outswim the current, you’ll have to outthink it using the information provided in this article.
The first thing is to realize that while a rip current can pull you quickly away from shore, it will not pull you under. People drown in rip currents not because of the current itself, but because they wear themselves out trying to swim against the current. The internet contains a plethora of videos showing lifeguards and other volunteers purposely putting themselves into rip currents so that they may demonstrate how to get out of one. And that means that rip currents on their own won’t kill you – otherwise, these experts would not willingly put themselves in one. However, panicking and trying to fight the current may result in physical exhaustion which is what defeats those who are caught in a current. You should summon someone, preferably a lifeguard, by waving your hands above your head – but again, trying to keep calm. Letting them know as soon as you realize you are in danger may make a difference.
Second, remember that rip currents are generally narrow, and the water just outside the current will behave with a predictable flow towards the shore. If you can either swim to the left or the right of the current, parallel to the shore, you may pretty quickly get out of its grip. Another option is to float on your back until you feel you are out of the current, again summoning someone on shore to let them know you need assistance. Floating your way out may be advised if you are not a strong swimmer or are already exhausted from being in the water to begin with – the point here is that you cannot afford to tire yourself out any more than you already may be. Once out, experts advise that you swim at an angle back to shore, allowing the wave action to guide you in. If you are not able to swim, continue to summon a lifeguard or someone on shore by waving your arms above your head so that they can come to your rescue. Again, this is why it is crucial to swim at a guarded beach at all times, directly in front of a lifeguard.
Finally, it is advised that if you observe someone who is caught in a rip current, you should summon help by alerting a lifeguard or calling 911 and do not try to go in to save them yourself. Many people die from trying to save someone else – who ultimately survives.
So heed the warnings and don’t go in if you believe from what you’ve learned here that rip currents could be possible. If you do go in and get caught in one, remain calm and rely on this information to think your way out. Doing so will save your life.
For more information on rip currents, consult the New Jersey Sea Grant Consortium, the U.S. Lifesaving Association or the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).