For a safe Spring Break, watch out for rip currents

March 01, 2008

By Cindie Powell

As thousands of college students converge on Texas’ beaches this month, the Texas Sea Grant College Program wants everyone to know about the dangers of deadly rip currents that can sweep even the strongest swimmer out to sea.

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 also locations where parking lots are located for easy access to the beach. Rip currents are also more likely to form when there are heavy surf conditions.

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 swim to safety.

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 to educate beachgoers about the dangers of these fast-moving currents. The “Break the Grip of the Rip” campaign is designed to make beach activities safer and promote the use of rip current forecasts in local weather forecasts and warnings.

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.

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.

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

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.

English/Spanish brochures, posters and table tents about rip currents are available from Texas Sea Grant at sgpublications@tamu.edu or by calling (979) 862-3767. Additional information about rip currents is also available 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.