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. Along the east central Florida beaches, the most common cause of dangerous rip currents is a long period ocean swell, though winds blowing toward the shore can also be a cause. The swells and/or wind waves cause excess water to push onto the beaches, which builds water pressure behind the sandbar. (A sandbar is a ridge of underwater sand just off the beach). The water will flow laterally along the shore and then seaward in a narrow channel where there is a break in the sandbar. This is called a rip current. Speeds in this channel can reach several miles per hour. Their strength is primarily dependent on the amount of water that is transported onto the beaches by breaking waves, but can also be affected by tidal conditions.
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. The NOAA rip current sign depicts this method of escape. However, in in a chaotic situation, it is often difficult to tell which way to swim. An alternate way of thinking about it would be to "swim towards the breaking waves" This is depicted by the green arrows on the NOAA rip current sign.
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 (again you can think of it as swimming toward the breaking waves).
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 Zone Forecast or Hazardous Weather Outlook for the latest rip current threat. This information is also available on NOAA Weather Radio. 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.