When a Newport Beach lifeguard, Ben Carlson, ventured on July 6, 2014 to save a swimmer caught in a Rip Current, tragically, he lost his life. One witness described ocean conditions that day by saying, “It looked like a hurricane from outer space.” That seems like a pretty scary place to go swimming.
The survivor who owes his life to Ben Carlson is one of 278 people who were rescued from the turbulent waters off the coast of Newport Beach that day. Unfortunately, Rip Currents are unpredictable, strong and deadly for experienced lifeguards, let alone casual swimmers. But there is good news. If you prepare, no matter the conditions, you can #BESAFE.
Ten Little-known facts about Rip Currents:
1. A Rip Current is a horizontal flow of water moving in the offshore direction.
2. An oft-repeated myth is that a Rip Current is the same as an undertow. On the contrary; a Rip Current is typically the strongest at about a foot off of the ocean floor. Rip Currents do not pull people under the water. They carry people away from the shore.
3. People get in trouble when they are so far offshore that they are unable to swim back to the beach. People also get into trouble when they ignore the conditions and swim anyway. Don’t take unnecessary chances, people!
4. Rip Currents are actually present on many beaches every day of the year. But they are usually too slow to be dangerous to beach-goers. It is only under certain wave, tide and beach shape conditions that they can increase to dangerous speeds. And if you stay on dry land, you won’t have anything to fear from Rip Currents. Just my land-loving opinion.
5. Several different terms are currently used to describe Rip Currents. The National Weather Service, Sea Grant, and the United States Lifesaving Association are working together to develop consistent terminology to provide a clear Rip Current safety message to the public. Seems like a no-brainer, to me.
6. Despite potential danger, The National Weather Service does not issue Rip Current advisories or warnings. However, local beach patrol personnel, local lifeguards, or local law enforcement officials may issue such warnings.
7. The National Weather Service does issue Surf Zone Forecasts for some coastal areas, which contain Rip Current Outlooks. So check out those forecasts if you like to swim.
8. Rip Current Outlooks are issued during the “swimming season,” which is defined by local National Weather Service Office. If you swim in a pool, rip currents won’t affect you. Just another idea…
9. Long period swells sometimes result in minimal wave action where the ocean surface is hardly disturbed, yet there is a greater than normal transport of wave energy into the surf zone which may result in an elevated Rip Current risk.
10. Rip Currents can be 50 feet to 50 yards in width, and the strength of the current can be up to 3 to 5 mph.
The Three-tiered Set of Qualifiers to identify Rip Currents:
• Low Risk – Wind and/or wave conditions are not expected to support the development of Rip Currents; however, Rip Currents can sometimes occur, especially in the vicinity of jetties and piers. Know how to swim and heed the advice of lifeguards. I think this sounds like the best time to doggie-paddle.
• Moderate Risk of Rip Currents – Wind and/or wave conditions support stronger or more frequent Rip Currents. Only experienced surf swimmers should enter the water.
• High Risk of Rip Currents – Wind and/or wave conditions support dangerous Rip Currents. Rip Currents are life-threatening to anyone entering the surf.
Ten Tips for Preparing for/or Surviving a Rip Current:
1. Before heading to the beach, check out the Rip Forecast so that you can be prepared.
2. Only swim at beaches guarded by beach patrol or lifeguards.
3. Don’t swim alone. Swimming is more fun with friends or family members, anyway.
4. Learn to recognize the signs of a Rip Current, which include water traveling from the beach back out to sea. What’s more, Rip Currents produce water which will likely be turbulent due to the carving out of a channel in the sub-sea surface sand.
5. When in doubt, avoid swimming in the ocean.
6. If you are caught in a Rip Current, try to remain calm!
7. Signal to someone on the beach, a lifeguard or a friend, that you need help.
8. If you are a strong swimmer, try to swim parallel to the beach until you are out of the Rip Current. Then swim toward the shore.
9. Never try to swim back to shore directly against the Rip Current, as this can exhaust and drown even the strongest swimmer.
10. For less confident swimmers, wade sideways parallel to the beach until you are out of the rip. And if you aren’t a confident swimmer, maybe stay in a pool until you improve?
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