(July 23, 2021) If you spend anytime at the beach and listen to local television or radio at this time of the year, you will hear about the dangers of rip currents, often confused as riptides.
While a tide is caused by the gravitational pull of the moon and sun every six hours, a rip current is a volume of water moving out to sea through a deeper channel in the sand bar, bringing anything (or anyone) in the current with it.
Someone standing in waist-deep water can be swept out to greater depths in seconds due to rip currents.
While the mechanics of a rip current are easily understood, they still account for over 95 percent of all water-related rescues in Ocean City and are responsible for most ocean drownings.
In fact, the National Weather Service has identified them as the third leading cause of weather-related deaths over time (behind heat and flash floods), however, this past year (2020) they moved to number two.
That is why it is so important to understand how to identify and escape a rip current.
You can spot a rip current by its telltale signs – streaks of foamy, brownish, textured water moving away from shore as the waves break and stir up the sandy bottom.
Rip currents can be either permanent (around jetties or piers) or flash (which can open and close at any time, which is why it is impossible to mark their location) and vary in severity throughout the day as the tides change, but they will still share these common telltale signs.
You can visit any lifeguard stand and look at the sign on the back for a visual representation of a rip current.
Because rip currents move water away from shore, they do not pull a person under water; instead, the sensation of sinking may be felt as the swimmer searches for the bottom of the deeper channel.
Do not try to touch the bottom and fight the current by either walking or swimming straight in. Instead, swim parallel to shore to escape the current laterally (rip currents are generally not wider than 20 yards), then swim into shore.
A lifeguard who has spotted you in the current may also whistle at you and direct you in the direction of least resistance to escape the rip, or enter the water to help pull you to safety.
However, if someone is caught in a rip current while lifeguards are not on duty, the outcome could be deadly. Over 98 percent of all drowning deaths in Ocean City over the past 90 years have occurred when the Beach Patrol was off duty.
Both swimmers and non-swimmers alike can drown in rip currents due to panic, fatigue, and lack of ocean awareness.
A rip current is very much like a treadmill. As water is flowing away from the beach, a swimmer attempting to swim straight in will make little or no progress against this outgoing current.
Since a rip current may flow faster than an Olympic swimmer can swim, swimming against this current only causes a person in this situation to become fatigued while getting no closer to the beach.
Eventually they become so fatigued that they are no longer able to keep their head above water and once they slip below the water’s surface, they only have moments before they become a statistic.
If caught in a rip current, remember to stay calm. If you cannot swim sideways, let the rip current take you out to the sandbar until you can no longer feel its pull; rip currents do not extend out to sea indefinitely.
If you are using a flotation device such as a boogie board, never abandon it and always signal the lifeguard if you want their assistance.
In most cases they will already be on their way to assist you back to safety and follow the tips outlined above, which can be remembered as RIP: R= Relax, I= I need help (wave for assistance), and P = Parallel to shore.
To keep people in Ocean City safe, the Beach Patrol monitors the frequency and severity of rip current activity and reports to NOAA 3 times each day, and work directly with scientists to understand rip currents and how to better forecast them.
Our lifeguards are also trained to spot rip currents and educate the public, though we encourage you to meet your lifeguard and ask about the rip current conditions before you enter the ocean. Remember RIP and to always “Keep your feet in the sand until the lifeguard’s in the stand!”
For additional information about rip currents and other water safety topics visit our webpage, www.ococean.com/ocbp and follow the safety button.
NOAA also has a very informative site to learn more about how they occur and how to remain safe (www.ripcurrents.noaa.gov/).