Medicine for the Outdoors
Medicine for the Outdoors

Dr. Paul Auerbach is the world's leading outdoor health expert. His blog offers tips on outdoor safety and advice on how to handle wilderness emergencies.

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Rip Current

As we move into warmer weather across the nation, beachgoers will increasingly enter the water. With ocean swimming comes the attendant hazards, among which are the phenomena known as rip currents. These natural occurrences account for many rescues each year, and unfortunately, at least a few drownings.

A rip current, or "rip," is caused by a depression in the sand approaching the beach. This sometimes occurs when there is a sandbar offshore. If part of the sandbar collapses, then a relatively narrow opening is created that allows the water to rush through and either create or worsen the depression. The width of the depression can be as narrow as 15 yards at its source. When the water is pulled in the seaward direction through the depression, the flow is "concentrated" and moves at a faster rate than the water which is flowing outside of the depression. This becomes an irresistable (for a swimmer) force and captures the swimmer. The important physical feature of the depression, upon which is suggested the escape method, is that the depression does not usually extend as far out into the water as the runout distance.

From the surface, a rip looks like a runout, with a visible streak of turbulent water or perhaps a line of foam that leading directly out from the shore. However, sometimes it is not noticeable except by an experienced ocean swimmer.

If one is caught in a rip, the first thing to do is to not panic. Then, one has two main choices. The first is to swim parallel to the beach, if that is possible. In that manner, one escapes the more swiftly flowing water. If that is not possible, then one can relax (that is easy to recommend, but sometimes emotionally not easy to accomplish) and ride the current until it declines sufficiently to exit the current by swimming parallel to the beach, then returning to the shore out of the trajectory of the rip current. The thing not to do is to try to swim directly back toward shore while directly in the midst of the swift current of the rip.

There is always some discussion about whether or not beaches should be closed during times of rip currents, particularly if a particular location has multiple rips present simultaneously. This is an issue even when lifeguards are present, because it is not uncommon for many people to require help simultaneously, and it is easy to envision how a single guard, or even team of guards, could be overwhelmed by their calls to duty.

Red flags at the beach mean something, whether it be the presence of unsafe currents, rips, sharks or jellyfish in the water, or some other hazard. If they are up, they are there for a reason, so please obey posted warnings and allow safety professionals and volunteers to keep you safe and sound. Keep an extra watchful eye on teenagers and children. Whether or not someone is waving vigorously for help, if you see them drifting away from the beach, call for assistance.

Preview the Annual Meeting of the Wilderness Medical Society, which will be held in Snowmass, Colorado July 24-29, 2009.

Join me from January 24 to February 2, 2010 for an exciting dive and wilderness medicine CME adventure aboard the Nautilus Explorer to Socorro Island, Mexico to benefit the Wilderness Medical Society.

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About the Author

Dr. Paul S. Auerbach is the world’s leading authority on wilderness medicine.