Be aware of rip current dangers for safe Spring Break

March 01, 2010

By Cindie Powell

As thousands of college students arrive at Texas beaches for spring break this month, the Texas Sea Grant College Program wants to remind them of the dangers of rip currents, which can pull even the strongest swimmer out to sea.

A rip current is a horizontal current that moves perpendicular to the shore. It does not pull people under the water, it pulls people away from shore. Drowning deaths occur when people pulled offshore are unable to keep themselves afloat and cannot swim to safety.

Rip currents cause at least 100 deaths each year at United States coastal and Great Lakes beaches. They frequently form around man-made structures like jetties, groins and piers, which are often places with easiest beach access. Rip currents also are more likely to form when there are heavy surf conditions, and many beach forecasts now include rip current information.

Texas Sea Grant, in partnership with the National Sea Grant College Program, the National Weather Service (NWS) and the United States Lifesaving Association (USLA), is participating in a national public awareness campaign, called “Break the Grip of the Rip,” to educate beachgoers about the dangers of these fast-moving currents.

The campaign recommends that beachgoers learn how to swim and never swim alone; be cautious at all times, especially when swimming at unguarded beaches; and whenever possible, swim at lifeguard-protected beaches and obey all instructions from lifeguards.

If you are caught in a rip current, Texas Sea Grant and USLA recommend the following strategy:

  • Remain calm to conserve energy and think clearly.
  • Don’t fight the current by trying to swim straight to shore.
  • 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 you feel you will be unable to reach the shore, draw attention to yourself — face the shore and call or wave for help.

Other factors that can increase the danger include consuming excessive alcoholic beverages before entering the water.

Some clues that may indicate the presence of a rip current include a channel of churning, choppy water; an area with a noticeable difference in water color; a line of foam, seaweed or debris moving steadily seaward; and a break in the incoming wave pattern. However, these signs are not always visible.

Many people have died trying to rescue rip current victims. If you see someone in trouble, get help from a lifeguard. If there is no lifeguard, yell instructions on how to escape, throw the victim something that floats and have someone call 9-1-1.

More information about rip currents is available from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) at www.ripcurrents.noaa.gov. Posters and other printed materials in English and Spanish are also available by contacting Texas Sea Grant at sgpublications@tamu.edu.

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Texas Sea Grant is a unique partnership that unites the resources of the federal government, the State of Texas and universities across the state to create knowledge, tools, products and services that benefit the economy, the environment and the citizens of Texas. It is administered through the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and is one of 33 university-based Sea Grant Programs around the country. Texas Sea Grant is a non-academic research center in the College of Geosciences at Texas A&M University. The program’s mission is to improve the understanding, wise use and stewardship of Texas coastal and marine resources.