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Rip Current No. 1 Beach Danger

Learn what you can do to avoid beach death traps.

A Horrible Day at the Beach continued...

"I ran to the beach. As I was running down the boardwalk, there was a helicopter coming in. The sheriff's people were just coming up. They put on life vests and waded in. I waded in after them. I saw people in the water trying to get a man out. I think, 'Oh my God, it's Larry.' Then I see another man floating in the water.

"It just seemed to go on forever. At one point I just screamed to the heavens, but mostly I just stood there in the water, praying. I saw a man brought in with red trunks and they started working on him. Then I saw another man out there floating face down, and I knew. It was Larry. Larry was dead."

Rip Currents

How could a healthy boy and two grown men get into so much trouble in shallow water? The answer: Rip currents, which are common on many U.S. beaches. They're often misnamed rip tides or undertows. But they aren't tides, and they don't pull you under water.

It starts on a windy day, usually before or after a storm. Winds blow up waves that crash over a near-shore sandbar. Gravity pulls the water back to sea, but more waves -- and the sandbar -- keep it from flowing out. Eventually, tons of water flow sideways along the shore. This is called a longshore current. If you've ever gone swimming and found yourself pulled far from your blanket on the beach, you've been in a longshore current.

But sooner or later, all that water has to go somewhere, says B. Chris Brewster, retired San Diego lifeguard chief and national certification committee chair for the U.S. Lifesaving Association. Brewster is widely regarded as an expert on rip currents.

"Surf pushes water inside the sandbar, and once pressure builds up there is a collapse of the sandbar," Brewster tells WebMD. "What makes this particularly dangerous is that people inside the sandbar have this sense of calm. They seem to be sheltered from most of the wave turbulence. They are often waders who get sucked out through the sandbar like it was a toilet flushing."

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