Rip Current No. 1 Beach Danger

Learn what you can do to avoid beach death traps.

Medically Reviewed by Michael W. Smith, MD on June 17, 2003
9 min read

Surf can kill. Yet many of America's beaches have no lifeguards. If your favorite beach becomes a death trap, do you know what to do?

Probably not. Earlier this month, nine people drowned on crowded, unguarded Florida Gulf-coast beaches. Scores more were pulled from the water. The culprit: rip currents, often misnamed rip tides or undertows. They're unpredictable. They're inviting to swimmers. And if you don't know exactly what to do, they're killers.

If you think it couldn't happen to you, read on. This is the story of Larry and Sandee LaMotte. It hits very close to home for the WebMD staff. Larry, a former CNN bureau chief and correspondent, was a volunteer life coach for WebMD community members. Sandee is director of WebMD communities.

It was already about 4 p.m. when they got to the beach. When they checked in at the rental agency, Sandee said nobody mentioned that there were red flags on the beach -- or that they meant "Dangerous Conditions -- Swimming Prohibited."

The surf was up -- unusual, but not a rare thing for Grayton Beach. Larry, Sandee, and their children Ryan, 12, and Krysta, 9, saw the red flag as soon as they arrived.

"The sign next to the red flag said it meant 'dangerous currents, like rip tides,' but it did not say these currents could or would occur at the shoreline," Sandee tells WebMD. "I saw a sheriff's deputy on the beach while we were there, but he drove through the crowd, with no warnings. Families like mine played in the surf all day. Dozens were in danger."

Sandee and the kids waded in the water -- she about ankle deep, the kids in only up to their knees. Ryan played with a "boogie board" in the shallow water inside the sandbar. At about 6 p.m., Sandee told Larry she'd take over dinner duties. She went inside the rental house. The kids kept on wading.

"Ten minutes later the kids came screeching in the door saying that Ryan was stuck in the water and Daddy went in after them and couldn't get out," Sandee says.

"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."

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."

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. "

Fighting the current as he looked for Larry in the deeper water, Brindley himself drowned.

It's a common scenario, says Peter Wernicki, MD, medical advisor to the U.S. and World Lifesaving Associations.

"It's often not the first person caught in the rip current, but the second or third who drowns," Wernicki tells WebMD. "The child who might be a bit more buoyant often comes out OK. But the dad who charges right in, he is the one who often succumbs. I think essentially it is a matter of exhaustion. People fight and fight and fight and start swallowing water and just go below the waves."

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."

So for most people, Brewster recommends swimming parallel to the shore. One doesn't have to be a very strong swimmer to do this. Rip currents aren't exactly narrow, but they are concentrated in one place. In a short while, most swimmers should be outside the current and able to make it back to shore.

Sometimes the rip current is diagonal to shore. If you try to swim parallel to shore but aren't making any progress, Brewster says, turn around and swim parallel to shore in the other direction. That will do the trick.

Brewster literally put together the book on open-water lifesaving -- his text is used all over the world. Here's his advice on how to save someone caught in a rip current:

  • Toss something that floats to the person in trouble. Lifeguards use a rescue buoy. A life jacket would be the next choice, or any approved lifesaving device. If none is available, try anything buoyant. Brewster suggests tossing a sealed, watertight cooler if nothing else is available.

  • Toss a rope to the victim. This isn't as good as a something that floats, because a person panicking may not see -- or be able to reach -- a slippery line.

  • Coach the victim. Shout loudly so you can be heard above the surf. Try to get the victim to stay calm. Explain what is going on. Urge him or her NOT to fight toward shore, but to swim or wade parallel to shore.

  • Don't enter the water if you aren't a calm, confident, skilled swimmer. Even so, it's a VERY dangerous choice. "Whether to go in for a rescue is a very personal decision based on your ability and understanding of rip currents," Brewster says. "The reality is that many people in rescue attempts do drown each year. There is no value in having two people drown in an attempted save."

  • If you understand rip currents, and are a strong swimmer, you may decide to enter the water. It's best to have something that floats to hold on to. If not, a pair of swim fins can make it much easier to swim. DO NOT MAKE PHYSICAL CONTACT WITH THE VICTIM. A panicking person will pull a rescuer under water. "The worst-case scenario -- something lifeguards avoid like the plague -- is physical contact with the victim," Brewster says. Swim well out of reach of the victim. If you have a flotation device such as a boogie board or a rescue tube, get the victim to grab hold of one side. Do not let the victim grab you. Urge the victim to calm down and follow you as you swim parallel to shore.

  • Forming a human chain to reach the victim does NOT work, Brewster says. The people at the end of the chain will be in danger -- and if the chain breaks, several more people will be in trouble.

About 12 Americans drown every day. Yet on beaches protected by lifeguards, the odds of drowning are one in 16 million, according to the U.S. Lifeguard Association. That's five times safer than on unprotected beaches.

Unfortunately, in these days of cuts in government services, fewer and fewer beaches employ trained lifeguards.

"The one factor that is most tragic about rip-current deaths is they wouldn't happen if there were lifeguards," Wernicki says.

"I think a large number of people who go to the beach are from inland. They are not good swimmers; they are not familiar with ocean currents. They don't have a clue what to do in an emergency. I think they are lured onto unprotected beaches. 'Come to our beach, it is clean,' they say. But maybe if they were better informed they would choose to go to beaches with lifeguards."

Sandee LaMotte is angry. She is working to get Florida municipalities to pass "Larry's Law" -- requiring lifeguards on all public beaches.

"The current lack of protection is just callous disregard for human life," she says. "It has to change."

Brewster has been working for years to get Florida Gulf coast municipalities to establish lifeguards. Last week, the mayor and fire chief of Destin, Fla., spoke with him about establishing a lifeguard service. Most other northwest Florida communities, he says, haven't been as cooperative.

"It is my personal judgment that these communities are not going to change until forced to do so, shamed to do so -- which would take a lot -- or until they feel economically compelled to do so," Brewster says.