Posted by: dharmabeachbum | July 22, 2013

Rip currents can be deadly, escapable

Rip currents are identifiable from the highest point on beach. Note the different colored water of the rip "head" beyond the surf zone, the choppy water in the rip "neck" and the break in the incoming wave pattern as waves roll into shore.

Rip currents are identifiable from the highest point of the beach, but it’s best to consult with lifeguards about ocean conditions prior to going for a swim.

Everyone taking a dip in the ocean along the Grand Strand should have a basic understanding of what a rip current is, how they form and how to escape from them. Very few people do.

We’ve had several people drown along the Grand Strand this summer. A few more swimmers perished off Sunset Beach and Ocean Isle Beach just across the North Carolina border. I don’t think it’s a stretch to say some of them fell victim to rip currents — rips, as they are commonly known.

A rip is a strong channel of water flowing seaward from the beach. They form when wind-driven waves push water toward the shore and the water is forced sideways by the oncoming waves. The water streams along the shoreline until it finds an exit back to the sea through gaps in sand bars that have formed just offshore. When conditions are at their worst, sand bars can line up along the coast. Those sand bars and the gaps between them would look much like an extended chain from the air.

Rips aren’t any more than several yards wide and they are escapable. First and perhaps foremost, don’t panic. Keep a clear head and don’t waste energy. Rips don’t pull you to the bottom. Do not swim directly back to shore against the current. Decorated former Olympian Michael Phelps couldn’t swim straight back to the beach against more powerful rip currents. I’d bet him a bong hit on that one. Kidding. I’m kidding.

For those who aren’t adept at swimming, it might be best to float and let the rip take you away from shore until its strength subsides. If lifeguard stands are nearby, wave your arms while floating beyond the breakers. If no lifeguards are manning the beach, swim diagonally to shore and gradually work your way back in.

The second escape strategy — one that I’ve used twice — involves swimming from the midst of the rip (the neck). I swam parallel to the beach with the longshore current, gradually working my way back to shore. Yeah, I worried when I first realized that the rip was dragging me out to sea. But I didn’t panic. I relied on much of the information that I’m passing along to you.

Interestingly, I recently saw an internet post in which a young lady said she got flustered when she tried to walk her way back to shore and stepped into deeper water as she walked. Sure, she was walking off a sand bar into a trench carved out by the longshore currents. Thankfully, she did the right thing by going with the flow.

Have I scared the bejesus out of you yet? I hope not. Remember, we have 14 million tourists visiting the Redneck Riviera every year, many of whom enjoy sampling the fringes of the big pond. Relatively few people encounter any problems in our surf.

Frankly, I hesitated before writing this blog. I’m not an expert on rip currents, but I did stay at a Holiday Inn Express once. (I know. I’ve used that line before.) I’d highly recommend that anyone visiting the beach consult one or two of many internet sites dedicated to the subject of rip currents. Experts can tell you much more concisely and in more definitive terms about the phenomenon.

Visit the Grand Strand. Enjoy the ocean. Be safe.

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Responses

  1. An excellent description of a rip current and very sound advice on how to escape. Your comment about Phelps vs. a riptide is 100% true. I had a sense of fear/adrenaline as I read this blog. It brought me back to the few times I found myself at the mercy of a rip current. The most recent incident was on the Pacific coast of central Mexico. I am a master swimmer. I went for my daily swim parallel to the beach about 20 meters from shore in somewhat choppy waters, just outside 3 ft. waves. I noticed nothing until I tried to return to shore. After several futile attempts to “‘power” my way back to shore, I realized I was trapped. My strength tapped, I floated then slowly swam diagonally until I felt no resistance and went for the shore. Honestly, I don’t care how stupid it looks, but I will wear a flotation device when ocean swimming from now on.

    • Thanks so much, Kelly, for your kind comment. I really was nervous in writing this one ’cause I didn’t want to give any advice that would confuse anyone. Sounds like those waters off the coast of central Mexico were pretty rough. Then again, like you said, sometimes rips aren’t clearly visible. The relative calmness of the water can be deceiving. Those floatation devices are a great idea. More people should use them. Thanks again for taking time to read my stuff and comment. Peace.


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