A rip current is like a shallow river or channel of water on the surface of the ocean. Rip currents are strong, and can pull you out away from the shore even if you are a good swimmer. Special weather conditions can cause rip currents to form. Figure A shows strong winds blowing toward the shore. This causes water pressure to build up on the sandbar. (A sandbar is a ridge of underwater sand near the shore.) Figure B shows the water pressure between the shore and the sand bar getting stronger. There is just too much water to stay in one place. Figure C shows how the water "rips through" the sandbar and forms a channel, usually only about 20 yards wide. It is within this channel that the water rushes out to sea. This is called a rip current.
Playing in the ocean or gulf can be fun, but it can also be dangerous. One weekend in June 2003, warning flags were flying along the beautiful beaches of the Western Florida Panhandle. High waves from the Gulf of Mexico were causing rip currents. Eight people drowned that day because they ignored the warnings. Sadly, this was not an isolated case.
Over Labor Day weekend in 2003, five more people drowned along the beach in Southeast Florida. During the past two years many more people than usual have died in rip current drownings. But tragedy can be avoided.
Break the Grip of the Rip
Knowing what to do if caught in a rip current's grip can save your life or the life of a friend. Trying to swim straight to the beach against a rip current is just too difficult. Even a good swimmer will become tired and might even drown. The best escape is to turn sideways to the shore, and wade or swim until you are out of the rip current. Then move back toward shore at an angle away from the rush of water. If you can float, you might even just relax and "go with the flow." Rip currents do not usually go out very far. Let the rip current carry you until it slows down a short distance offshore. Then swim toward the beach away from the rip current.
So, the sun is shining. It's hot. You are headed for the beach! Before packing up the family car, you should check the Surf Forecast. Each day the National Weather Service issues a Surf Forecast. It includes the risk for rip currents and many other weather-related hazards that you might face at the beach. This forecast is also available on NOAA Weather Radio or from local TV and radio broadcasts. Before laying down your towel at the beach, look for the nearest lifeguard. Ask about the water conditions. If there is no lifeguard on duty, check for warning flags or signs. Avoid going into the water above your knees if winds are strong or the surf is rough.