This is the moment you’ve been waiting for. You’re in your favorite suit, the hot sun is beaming down and you feel the soft sand between your toes as you approach the water’s edge. You dive under the first crashing wave and an instant sense of calm washes over you.
Firstly, lifeguards are the true experts of the ocean and have an eagle eye for changing ocean conditions. On our beaches here in South Walton there is a warning flag system in place to mark the daily conditions of the water. Double red flag means no swimming. Always heed these warnings and markers.
In addition to the beach safety experts, you can do your part by having a clear understanding of rip currents. There are two super important things to know about rip currents.
Rips can start right from the shoreline and suck strong, turbulent water out beyond the crashing waves, where they finally lose their power and intensity.
You can think of a rip as a hole in the sand bank. According to the United States Lifesaving Association, at least 80% of all ocean rescues are due to rips. That’s a lot of innocent swimmers getting in over their heads, not to mention drownings because of them.
If you were to step into a rip, the water becomes surprisingly deep with fast moving currents heading out to sea.
• A deep section of water that is choppy and/or foamy
• A gap in the breaking waves in this deep section of water
• The color of the water might be darker
• You might notice floating seaweed or objects caught in the deeper water moving out to sea
If you recognize any of these common characteristics of a rip, absolutely do not swim in that area.
One of the first natural human reactions when stuck in a rip is to panic and attempt to swim directly against the strong rip current.
Panicking will only increase your risk of drowning, as it quickly drains much-needed energy that you require to get yourself safely to the shore.
The first thing you should do is raise your arm and wave for help. But what happens if no one is on the beach to see you?
• Never try to fight the current back to shore. This is a natural instinct to save yourself, but it will tire you very quickly, increasing your chances of drowning.
• Instead, swim parallel to the shore, directly across the rip channel where the deep water is pulling you out to sea. Once you get out of the deep channel, use the breaking waves or whitewash to be pushed back to shore. When you get out of the deep water that forms the rip, you may even be able to stand on a sand bank to gather your energy.
•If you’re unable to escape the rip by swimming across it, remain calm and tread water, until you’re taken beyond the breaking waves. You can also swim out to sea with the rip, knowing that you will be taken just behind the waves. You will then be able to use the force of the waves and whitewash to be pushed to shore.
• Remember, lifeguards will do all the hard work for you, in marking out the safest places to swim or putting up rip current color-coded flags. A rip always pulls you away from the shore, yet it will not pull you under the water.
Now that you’re armed with basic rip current knowledge, you can enjoy all the beauty that the ocean has to offer.
SHANNON DAVIDSON is a passionate surfer with an obsession of all things beach life.