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Understanding rip currents: How to stay safe if caught in their grip

When it comes to rip currents, awareness can make all the difference between a day of fun in the sun and a potentially life-threatening situation.
Understanding rip currents: How to stay safe if caught in their grip
Posted at 3:01 PM, Jun 28, 2023

It's that time of year again when many Americans are heading to the beach to escape the summer heat, but many are often exposed to risky situations they may not be aware of when taking a dip in the water. One of those dangers is rip currents.

According to the National Weather Service, rip currents are the third leading cause of weather-related deaths in the U.S. since 2013 — surpassing both tornadoes and hurricanes. At least 11 people have died in the past two weeks after being caught in rip currents along the Gulf Coast, including former NFL quarterback Ryan Mallet, who was vacationing with his family in Florida when he was swept away from shore and drowned.

What makes rip currents particularly threatening is that they can be difficult to spot, and many people are unaware of how to react. With the summer season in full swing, it's important to understand what rip currents are and how to stay safe if ever caught in their formidable grip.

SEE MORE: Former NFL player Ryan Mallett dies at 35 after drowning accident

What is a rip current?

Rip currents, sometimes referred to as rip tides or undertows, are powerful, typically narrow and elongated channels of water that flow rapidly away from the shoreline. They occur when large amounts of water from incoming waves build up on the beach and then find the path of least resistance back out to open waters.

The danger lies in their intensive ability to quickly carry swimmers away from shore. According to Scripps News Meteorologist Scott Withers, rip currents can reach speeds of up to 8 feet per second — even faster than the average speed of an Olympic swimmer. 

While rip currents don't pull swimmers underwater, those who are swept away often make the critical mistake of swimming against the force of the current, leading to exhaustion, panic, and possibly death.

SEE MORE: The color of your child's swimsuit could save their life

What to do if caught in a rip current

If you find yourself caught in a rip current, it's crucial to remain calm and follow these steps:

1. Don't fight it: The force of a rip current can overpower even the strongest of swimmers. Never swim against the current and be sure to conserve energy until you can make it safely to shore.

2. Swim parallel to the shore: Rather than attempting to swim directly back to the beach, it's important to swim parallel to the shoreline. Rip currents are typically narrow channels of water that can easily be escaped by swimming perpendicular to them.

3. Float and call for help: If you are unable to escape the grip of a rip current, try treading water and going with the flow. This not only conserves energy, but also allows you to wait for the current to dissipate and signal for help.

Spotting and avoiding rip currents

Prevention methods are key in protecting yourself and others from rip currents. They can usually be spotted while standing at slightly elevated positions along the beach. From there you'll be able to spot an area of choppy water that's typically a slightly different color and causes a break in the incoming wave pattern.

Most public beaches have lifeguards who are trained in identifying and responding to rip currents, but it's also important to pay attention to warning flags indicating hazardous swimming conditions. Additionally, try to review the local forecasts before heading to the beach. These experts typically have extensive experience in dealing with seasonal weather patterns and can alert you of potentially dangerous water conditions.

Remember, when it comes to rip currents, awareness and preparedness can make all the difference between a day of fun in the sun and a potentially life-threatening situation. 

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