As thousands of college students converge on Texas beaches this month, the Texas Sea Grant College Program at Texas A&M University would like everyone to be aware of the dangers of rip currents, which 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. A rip current is a horizontal current that pulls people away from the shore. Drowning deaths occur when people pulled offshore are unable to keep themselves afloat or swim to safety.
Dr. Christian Brannstrom, Associate Dean for Academic Affairs in the College of Geosciences, has studied rip currents and beachgoers’ perceptions of them. He warns that it can be much more difficult for occasional beach visitors to identify rip currents compared to frequent beach users, including surfers who ride rip currents out to the breaking waves so they can surf back to shore, but there are some clues that can help.
“There are signs beach visitors can look for, including a break in the incoming wave pattern; a channel of churning, choppy water; an area with a visible difference in water color; or a line of foam, seaweed or debris moving steadily seaward,” Brannstrom said. “Rip currents often form around man-made structures like piers, groins and jetties, and they’re also more likely to form when there are heavy surf conditions.”
Texas Sea Grant, the National Weather Service and the United States Lifesaving Association (USLA) recommend that beachgoers learn 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 warning signs and instructions from lifeguards.
If you are caught in a rip current, USLA recommends the following strategy:
- Remain calm to conserve energy and think clearly.
- Don’t fight the current by trying to swim against the current 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 don’t think you will be able 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. Texas’ strong alongshore current can also be a danger, especially to young children.
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.
Additional information about avoiding and surviving rip currents is available at www.ripcurrents.noaa.gov.