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Health & Pregnancy

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Rip Current No. 1 Beach Danger

Learn what you can do to avoid beach death traps.

Rip Currents continued...

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."

Sandee's Story

What happened, Sandee learned later, was no less common than it was tragic. Ryan and his boogie board got caught in a strong longshore current. He called to his father for help. Larry followed along the shore, trying to coax Ryan to shore. He couldn't make it.

"So Larry dove in, and that was the last anybody saw of him," Sandee says. "Larry must have missed Ryan and kept looking for him until he wore out. This man who was on the shore -- Ken Brindley -- and some other men tried to help Larry. Another man got to Ryan and pushed him safely to shore. Ken kept swimming out -- he must have been going after Larry. "

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