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Learn to identify, avoid, and survey rip currents - July 2, 2017

Every summer, ocean lifeguards are kept busy with saving beachgoers from rip currents. Eighty percent of all beach rescues in the country are caused by rip currents. It’s easy to see that rip currents are a huge problem right here in Ocean City.

Since 2014, the Ocean City Beach Patrol has made more than 7,600 rescues, making Ocean City one of the busiest beaches in the United States during the summer months.

The risk of swimmers getting caught in these dangerous currents could be greatly reduced by learning to identify, avoid, and survive a rip current.

Rip currents are caused by gaps in offshore sand bars or depressions in the ocean floor which produce narrow channels of fast-moving, sea-bound water. Anatomically speaking, a rip current can be broken into three sections; the “feeders,” the “neck” and the “head.” 

As waves crash over a sandbar, or onto the beach, the retreating water will search for the fastest route back to sea. 

This water will travel toward the sandbar gap or ocean floor depression through areas called “feeders.” The water then comes together and travels swiftly seaward through a narrow river-like channel called the “neck.” This water current can move very quickly, up to 8 feet per second, which is faster than an Olympic swimmer.

Once past the breakers and in deeper water, the current loses its speed and strength, and bubbles out in what is known as the “head.” Rip currents can occur not only where there are gaps and depressions, but also around fixed structures such as piers and rock groins.

From the beach, rip currents can be identified by one, or several of the following signs: a difference in water color, debris or foam flowing swiftly out to sea, a break in the wave pattern, and/or churning, choppy water.

If a swimmer notices an area that has any of these indicators, it would be best to try to avoid swimming there. Unfortunately, areas of minimal wave action can attract swimmers, who have no idea of the strong current they are about to swim into.

The most important thing for a swimmer to do if they find themselves in this situation is to remain calm. Even the most experienced of swimmers will have trouble if they panic. It’s a natural instinct to immediately try to fight against the current to get back to shore, but that will only fatigue a swimmer.

To safely exit a rip current, a swimmer should swim parallel to shore and out of the current.  Once the current is no longer pulling on them, the swimmer can turn toward shore and safely swim in.

If the swimmer cannot swim well or is too tired to swim, they should calmly tread water or lie on their back and float with the current until they can be rescued or until they are out of the rip. 

Contrary to popular belief, rip currents cannot pull a swimmer vertically underwater and hold them down. Most deaths from rips occur because the swimmer panics or attempts to swim directly against the current, leaving them exhausted.

Another popular myth is that rip currents, riptides and undertows are all the same things.

Riptides only occur at stationary structures and are specifically associated with tide.  Locally, Ocean City only has one riptide which is located at the inlet rock jetty. The danger here comes from the water pulling out and around the jetty, which could cause someone to be swept further into the ocean, or out into the inlet.

Undertows come from the energy that is produced from the backwash of a wave after it crashes on shore. As the water from the wave runs up the beach, it will flow back down the sand at a high velocity.

The danger of an undertow mainly affects young children and the elderly, because it can knock them down and around in the waves. Knowing the differences between these three water currents, and how to handle them, is an important factor to being safe at the beach. 

Swimmers should always pay attention to posted warnings and stay out of the water in dangerous conditions. There are greater chances for dangerous currents when a storm is near or has recently passed.

If there are lifeguards, the swimmer should make sure to swim in front of them, especially if there are rip current warnings posted. They should also feel free to ask the lifeguard on duty any questions they may have about rip currents or if there are any other dangers that they should be aware of on the beach.

Rip currents can be life threatening, but when swimmers are educated on identifying rip currents, their dangers, and how to deal with them, there is a much better chance of survival, and as a result, fewer rescues to be performed.

LuAnne Motley is a former STEP UP STEM intern and Liz Vander Clute is the education coordinator for the Maryland Coastal Bays Program



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