Rip Currents: No. 1 Beach Danger continued...
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.
"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."
Surviving a Rip Current
As deadly as rip currents are, it's not that hard to survive one -- if you stay calm and know exactly what to do.
"To get out, just tread water and allow the rip current to carry you out -- they tend to dissipate outside the breaking surf," Brewster says. "Then you can wait for help, or swim around the rip current and back to shore. But few people have the calm to do this. Most drown because they swim against it and tire out."