The ocean is a deep, dark abyss—it’s only natural for people to be a bit afraid of the unknown and what they can’t see beneath the surface. Shark attacks are a common fear—Jaws was a frightening movie and headlines of shark attacks get major attention, but in reality sharks are a lot less deadly than rip currents (often mistakenly called riptides).
Sharks are responsible for around 10 deaths a year but rip currents have been estimated to cause the death of 100 people annually, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
A rip current is a thin strip of water that’s moving quickly away from the shore, somewhat like a fast-moving river. A rip current can be anywhere from a few feet wide to several yards wide and usually only propels moving water 50-100 yards out from shore. The water can be moving at speeds up to eight feet per second, which is so powerful that even an Olympic swimmer wouldn’t be able to swim directly back to shore—and you shouldn’t try to either.
People usually drown by panicking and trying to overpower the current eventually wasting all their energy. To survive a rip current, either let the current take you out and focus on floating and breathing or start swimming parallel to the shore. If you’d rather float out of the current, it will only put you about 100 yards from shore, from there you can try to signal for help or swim back with the help of the waves, away from the path of the rip current.
If you swim parallel to the shore you’ll be out of the rip current’s pull shortly, as they are narrow channels. Then you can make it back to shore once you get far away from the rip current, but make sure you get far enough away from the rip current before trying to swim back to shore.
Rip currents are found all over the U.S., from coastal areas to the shores of the Great Lakes. The University of Delaware outlines a list of characteristics that you might see when a rip current is present.
• A channel of churning, choppy water;
• A line of sea foam, seaweed, or debris moving steadily seaward;
• Different colored water beyond the surf zone; and
• A break in the incoming wave pattern as waves roll into shore.
Experts recommend you look out for the above signs and notices posted on the beach. Always swim near lifeguards and if you don’t know how to swim, never go in past your knees. Most importantly, don’t give in to panic, the worst thing you can do is try to fight the current. Keep these tips in mind, death by rip currents is avoidable; educate family and friends for a safe summer.