For a safe Spring Break, be aware of rip current dangers

March 06, 2014

COLLEGE STATION, Texas — As thousands of college students converge on Texas beaches this month, the Texas Sea Grant College Program at Texas A&M University would like to remind everyone 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 the beach. 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. In Texas they are more common around man-made structures like jetties, groins and piers, which are also often the locations with easiest beach access. However, they can also form on the parts of the coast without these structures — anywhere there is breaking surf.

Drs. Chris Houser and Christian Brannstrom, two Texas A&M University researchers who are studying rip current awareness under a grant from Texas Sea Grant, urged beachgoers to be careful, especially when alcohol is involved.

“Rips can be the strongest at about four o’clock in the afternoon,” Houser said. “That’s about the time most people are sunbaked, they’re tired, and there’s a good possibility of someone being drunk — and that creates the greatest vulnerability for swimmers.”

Other advice from the researchers: Obey hazard signs, but don’t assume that an absence of warning signs on other parts of the coast means the area is safe. Their study has found that beach visitors often mistakenly believe that the rip channel is the safest place to swim because it looks more calm, but the cause of the break in incoming surf could be a rip current pushing water quickly offshore.

Other 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; and a line of foam, seaweed or debris moving steadily seaward. However, these signs are not always visible.

Texas Sea Grant 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:
   • 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.

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.

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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.