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Rip Current No. 1 Beach Danger

Learn what you can do to avoid beach death traps.

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."

When there's a break in the sandbar, the longshore currents head out to sea. As they funnel through the break, they get incredibly strong. This is a rip current. It can flow as fast as 5 mph -- faster than an Olympic swimmer and stronger than the strongest man on earth. Contrary to popular belief, someone caught in a rip current isn't pulled under water. And it won't flow to France -- the rip current dissipates just beyond the breakers. But it's still a killer.

More than eight out of 10 beach drownings and lifeguard rescues are due to rip currents, says Richard E. Gould, parks director for the Santa Clarita, Calif., and national statistics coordinator for the U.S. Lifesaving Association.

"When you're at the beach, rip currents are the most important thing you need to worry about," Gould tells WebMD. "If there's no lifeguard, it's not safe. Everything I've read suggests there's a significant rip current problem on the Florida Gulf coast -- but no lifeguards."

Ironically, when you're walking on the beach, rip currents look very inviting.

"Rip currents form underwater channels that you wouldn't be able to spot standing on the shore," Brewster says. "What you see is an area where the waves are less likely to break as quickly or as violently. So you walk along the shore and see this calm area. People tend to be attracted to those areas -- the most dangerous ones on the beach."

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