Rip Currents: What they are; The dangers; How to escape


Poster with graphic shows how to “break the grip” of rip currents

Sunny days, fresh water, sandy beaches; all of these could be used to describe summer time in the Great Lakes. It’s the time of year when the snowsuits go into storage and the swimsuits come out. People flock to places like Grand Haven State Park, Mich., and Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore in Empire, Mich., to catch some rays and try to beat the summer heat by taking a dip.

Every year, however, rip currents continue to claim lives on all of the Great Lakes.

Lake Michigan has the highest number of current-related fatalities and rescues of all the Great Lakes, with 77 fatalities and at least 230 rescues since 2002 — 201 more incidents than all of the other lakes combined.

Knowing what a rip current is and how they form is the first step to staying safe out on the water, no matter what Great Lake you may find yourself on.

Rip currents are channeled currents of water flowing away from shore at surf beaches. Typically, they extend from near the shoreline, through the surf zone and past the line of breaking waves. The surf zone is the area between the high water level on the beach to the seaward side of the breaking waves.

They form when waves break near the shoreline, piling up water between the breaking waves and the beach. One of the ways this water returns to the lake is to form a rip current, a narrow stream of water moving swiftly away from shore, often perpendicular to shore.

Possible flags that swimmers may see at the beach and what they mean. NOAA photo

Possible flags that swimmers may see at the beach and what they mean.
NOAA image

Signs that a rip current is present can be difficult for the average person to detect. Looking for differences in water color, water motion, a break in the incoming wave pattern or a line of foam, seaweed or debris moving steadily seaward can help to detect a rip current. One, all or none of the clues may be visible.

Rip currents can vary greatly in width. They can be as narrow as 10or 20 feet, though, they may be up to ten times wider. The length of rip currents also varies. Most often, they begin to slow down as they move offshore. Sometimes, however, they can extend for hundreds of feet beyond the surf zone.

Some rip currents move too slowly to be of any danger to beachgoers. Many may not even be noticeable, although on some beaches they are present year round. Under certain wave, tide and beach shape conditions though; rip current speeds can quickly become dangerous. The strength and speed of a rip current will likely increase as wave height and wave period increase. Some have been measured to exceed five miles per hour. That speed may not seem fast, but keep in mind that many Olympic swimmers dream of attaining such speeds in the water.

What do you do though, if suddenly your day of fun in the sun turns south and you find yourself facing down a rip current?

Think of a rip current like a treadmill that doesn’t have an off button; you want to step to the side of it to get out. The key is to remain calm and remember to not fight the current. Once you get out of the current, swim at an angle away from the current and toward shore.

A rip current along a jetty. NOAA photo

A rip current along a jetty.
NOAA photo

In the event that you can’t escape, try to float or calmly tread water. Rip current strength eventually subsides offshore. When it does, swim toward shore. Always remember, if you start to feel that you will be unable to reach shore, draw attention to yourself: face the shore, wave your arms and yell for help.

There are many things that you can do to better prepare yourself to avoid rip current problems. The first, and perhaps most important, is learning to swim. Furthermore, if you will be in surf, learn to swim in it. Swimming in surf is not the same as a pool or inland lake.

Another way to avoid rip current problems is to never swim alone and if you do swim, swim near a lifeguard. Lifeguards are also a quick resource for you to check with before going out. They will be aware of rip current or other possible conditions that swimmers should be aware of.

Always assume that rip currents are present even if you don’t see them. Being cautious is never a bad thing. If in doubt, don’t go out.

If you see someone else caught in a rip current get help from a lifeguard and have someone call 911. Throw the rip current victim something that floats – a life jacket, a cooler, a ball. Doing so can help keep him calm and conserve his energy.

Whatever you do, don’t become a victim yourself. Many would-be rescuers have died trying to help someone else.

As previously stated, the Great Lakes can offer a plethora of fun. Swimming, boating and enjoying a day at the beach are great ways to build lasting memories with friends and family. Make sure those memories are happy ones and ensure that everyone you go out with knows the dangers associated with rip currents, as well as what to do if they find themselves caught in one.

For more information about rip currents, visit NOAA’s rip current safety page, the United States Lifesaving Association or The National Weather Service.

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