Just how serious is the risk to waders or swimmers from rip currents? Swimming in the ocean is very different from swimming in a pool or lake. The strength and force of ocean waves and currents are surprising to those unfamiliar with the power of the sea. Many unsuspecting vacationers who venture into the surf, even if they’re only in knee-deep water, may be swept off their feet by these strong ocean waves and currents.
The NOAA-USLA Rip Current Task Force has recently summarized rip current fatality statistics. As weather- and ocean-related fatality statistics from the past 10 years document, the number of rip current deaths nationwide ranks second – after heat-related deaths and ahead of deaths from floods, tornadoes, lightning, and hurricanes.
It is important to remember that rip currents do not pull people under water – they pull people away from shore. Drowning deaths usually occur when people are unable to keep themselves afloat and swim back to shore. This may be due to fear, panic, exhaustion, a lack of swimming skills, or any combination of these factors.
If you get caught in a rip current – remain calm, and try to float or tread water. Don’t swim against the current, as this is difficult for even experienced swimmers. Swim along the shoreline until you feel the current relax, or let the current carry you until it slows down. Then swim towards the shore at an angle. Since rip currents are narrow, it does not take much effort to swim along the shore out of danger’s way. If you are unable to reach shore, wave your arms and yell for help.
(Graphic courtesy NOAA-USLA Rip Current Task Force)
How can you protect yourself against rip currents?
If you are caught in a rip current:
- Stay calm – Don’t fight the current.
- Escape the current by swimming in a direction following the shoreline. When free of the current, swim at an angle – away from the current – toward shore.
- If you are unable to escape by swimming, float or tread water. When the current weakens, swim at an angle away from the current toward shore.
- If at any time you feel you will be unable to reach shore, draw attention to yourself: face the shore, call or wave for help.
How do I help someone else?
- Don’t become a victim while trying to help someone else! Many people have died in efforts to rescue rip current victims.
- Get help from a lifeguard.
- If a lifeguard is not present, yell instructions on how to escape.
- If possible, throw the rip current victim something that floats.
- Call 9-1-1 for further assistance.
Before leaving for the beach:
- Check the latest surf zone forecast on NOAA Weather Radio or online. During beach seasons, a number of National Weather Service offices issue a rip current outlook.
When you arrive at the beach:
- Speak with on-duty lifeguards about rip currents as well as other surf conditions expected for the day.
General safety tips:
- Know how to swim.
- Never swim alone.
- For maximum safety, swim near a lifeguard. Obey all instructions and orders from lifeguards.
- Be cautious at all times.
- If in doubt, don’t go out!
Get more info online:
Before leaving for the beach, check the latest National Weather Service surf zone forecast on NOAA Weather Radio or on the Web. These services are provided to the public by the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). A number of National Weather Service offices also issue a three-tiered rip current outlook using consistent terminology to describe the severity of rip currents.
Information about conditions at the Delaware and New Jersey coasts during the summer season can be found on the Web at www.erh.noaa.gov/er/phi/ripcurrent/getSRF.php. Marine forecasts and tidal information for the Delmarva, New Jersey, and New York coasts can be found at www.erh.noaa.gov/er/phi/marine.html.