How to survive if you get caught in a rip current
Being in a rip current can feel like a treadmill or conveyor belt in the ocean.
Sometimes swimmers don’t even notice they’ve been caught until they start to get tired trying to reach shore. Then panic can set in.
Rip currents are the No. 1 weather-related hazard in the Carolinas, Steven Pfaff, warning coordination meteorologist for the National Weather Service’s Wilmington office and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, told The News & Observer on July 24.
Not lightning. Not tornadoes or scorching heat — rip currents kill more people each year in the Carolinas than any other weather phenomenon, Pfaff said.
“It’s this scary thing, but so few people realize,” Pfaff said. “People are afraid of sharks, but that’s not what’s actually killing people. It’s rip currents — not the sharks.
“Lifeguards refer to rip currents as ‘drowning machines’ because they’re so efficient.”
North Carolina has had at least 55 recorded rip current deaths since 1996, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
The U.S. Lifesaving Association estimates about 100 people die in rip currents each year in the United States.
Rip currents accounted for more than 80 percent of the 84,900 rescues that lifeguards made in 2016.
North Carolina has seen 12 deaths this year as a result of rough ocean conditions, including dangerous waves and strong currents. There have been no rip-current related deaths in South Carolina so far this year, Pfaff said.
But not all of those North Carolina deaths are rip-current related, and sometimes it’s difficult to determine one from the other, Pfaff said. About six were likely rip current deaths.
“Often times the initial reports are that a death is rip related,” Pfaff said. “But no, it was a tidal current or rough surf. We have to be careful that we don’t label everything as a rip current. We want to get key pieces of information from the data and make sure we’re not masking something important.”
Pfaff gives talks to students, local governments, lifeguards, law enforcement and emergency responders, hoping to educate people about the danger of rip currents.
“We’re continuing to develop the forecast science and research side so we can be more and more accurate,” Pfaff said. “But how do we get the forecast out there to the public? So many of our fatalities are visitors to our state who may never have heard of a rip current before. Millions of people come to our beaches every year.”
One frustrating trend Pfaff said he and his colleagues see is people putting themselves in danger with the best intentions.
“It’s a scary trend,” Pfaff said of bystanders on beaches heading into the water to try to help struggling swimmers who may be caught in currents.
“It’s human nature to see someone in distress and want to help them,” Pfaff said. “But if you don’t have the tools or knowledge to do that, you put yourself at risk, even if you’re trying to do the right thing.”
About 30 percent of rip current fatalities in the Carolinas since 2011 are bystanders who tried to help, Pfaff said.
People don’t have a good sense of just how dangerous swimming in the ocean can be, Pfaff said.
“Talking to lifeguards over the years ... People think swimming in the ocean is like swimming in a pool,” he said. “But currents, waves and marine life make it whole different situation.”
Are currents getting worse?
While ocean fatalities are increasingly reported by the media and by towns, rescue groups, law enforcement and others on social media, Pfaff said there hasn’t been a significant increase in the number of people who die in rip currents in the Carolinas.
“I see ebbs and flows to the statistics,” he said. “We vary between 5 to 10 fatalities in the Carolinas each year.”
There were 9 rip current deaths in the Carolinas in 2017, according to data collected by NOAA.
North Carolina’s 6 so far this year “easily could surpass last year,” Pfaff said.
The Carolinas have had about 55 rip-current related deaths from 2008 to 2017, according to NOAA.
Most victims are men 41-50. There are far fewer women, but most female victims are 31-40.
Nearly half of the people who die in rip currents are visitors to the beach, according to NOAA.
What is a rip current?
“Rip currents are powerful, narrow channels of fast moving water” found all along U.S. coasts and along the shores of the Great Lakes, according to NOAA.
Rip currents can move up to eight feet per second — “faster than an Olympic swimmer,” according to NOAA.
Rip currents are found up and down the coast, but are often near piers, jetties and other permanent structures, Pfaff said.
Weather, including hurricanes, influence rip currents — changing their patterns and strength, Pfaff said.
“They can be really bad in one part of the beach and later in the year it can shift to another part of the same beach,” Pfaff said.
Storms far off the coast can create considerable changes in current strength, pushing big swells toward the beach which can worsen currents.
“And when a storm is far off and the weather is beautiful at the beach, people think it’s safe,” Pfaff said. “But those are the times when we can have 1 to 3 people die in the same day. It’s a matter of life and death.”
Rip currents are not the same as rip tides.
“A rip tide is a specific type of current associated with the swift movement of tidal water through inlets and the mouths of estuaries, embayments and harbors,” according to NOAA.
Rip current safety
If you get caught in a rip current, NOAA and the American Red Cross recommend you:
▪ Remain calm to conserve energy, and don’t fight against the current.
▪ Think of it as a treadmill that cannot be turned off and that you need to step to the side of.
▪ Swim out of the current in a direction following the shoreline. When out of the current, swim at an angle – away from the current – toward shore.
▪ Float or calmly tread water if you are unable to swim out of the rip current. When out of the current, swim toward shore.
▪ Wave your arms or yell for help to draw attention to yourself, if you are still unable to reach shore.