Beware the rip or prepare to RIP

March 09, 2012

By Jim Hiney

COLLEGE STATION — The State of Texas is warning thousands of spring breakers to avoid traveling to Mexico because of increasing drug-related violence, but an equally dangerous threat lurks in the salty surf along the state’s popular beaches.

Nine out of 10 beachgoers cannot identify a rip current that is happening right in front of them, said Dr. Chris Houser, associate professor of geography at Texas A&M University, who received a grant from the Texas Sea Grant College Program to study the public’s perceptions of rip currents and identify ways to improve the ability of beach users to identify them.

A rip current is a horizontal current that moves perpendicular to the shore, frequently forming around man-made structures like jetties, piers and groins. It does not pull people under the water — it pulls them away from shore. At least 100 people die along the nation’s coasts and Great Lakes beaches each year when rip currents pull them offshore, where they are unable to keep themselves afloat and cannot swim to safety.

Rip currents are more likely to form when there are heavy surf conditions, which combine with human nature to increase the danger.

“People tend to gravitate to areas where the waves are less intense, but those also happen to be where rip currents are most prevalent,” Houser said, adding that most incidents involving people and rip currents happen around 4 p.m., “When you are sunbaked, tired and, in the case of adults, possibly affected by alcohol consumption.”

If you are caught in a rip current:

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 by facing the shore and calling or waving for help.

Signs of a possible 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, some rip currents occur with no visible signs.

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 the current, 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.