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Riding Out Rip Currents

According to the CDC, drowning is the third leading cause of accidental death in the U.S. Many of these drownings occur at the beach, where rip currents are most often to blame.

Rip currents are narrow channels of water flowing out past the surf zone that can pull even strong swimmers into deep water beyond the offshore sand bar.

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You can enjoy a day at the beach if you respect the water and learn to expect the unexpected.

What To Do About Rip Currents

If you find yourself being pulled by a rip current, the U.S. Lifeguard Association has the following tips:

  • Try to relax and realize that a rip current will not pull you under -- it will just pull you away.
  • Do not swim against the current -- it will challenge even the strongest swimmers.
  • Float on your back and ride with the current.
  • Once you're past the breaking waves, swim parallel to the shore, then swim to the shore in calmer waters.

What Are Rip Currents?

Rip currents are strong, swift-moving channels of water rushing from the shore out to sea.

The National Weather Service explains how they're formed:

Unlike undertows, rip currents are shallow water processes that do not pull a person under. They form when water, piled against the shore, begins to return to deeper water. Typically, strong wind and swell waves push water over a sandbar allowing excess water to collect. Eventually, the excess water starts to return seaward through low areas in the sandbar, "ripping" an opening. Near the beach, rip currents are narrow (30-60 feet wide) with increasing width as they extend up to 1,000 feet offshore. The velocity of the water can be as high as 5 mph, which is faster than an Olympic swimmer.

Rip currents can be spotted from the beach. They churn up murky water or appear darker than the water around them. Also, you can spot a rip current by looking for objects or foam moving steadily seaward. Wave heights are also lower and choppier in rip currents. And if the beach is patrolled, look for flags that warn about dangerous waters.

WebMD Medical Reference

Reviewed by Melinda Ratini, DO, MS on December 30, 2014

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