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A Rip Current Survival Guide

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Rip Current Survival Guide Slyde Handboards

The leading danger for surfers, bodysurfers and handboarders isn't sharks.  It isn't jellyfish either.  It actually isn't even an animal at all.  It's rip currents. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration reports that over 100 drownings due to rip currents occur every year in the United States, and that more than 80% of water rescues on beaches are due to rip currents.  Slyde's rip current survival guide will answer all of the questions you have about rip currents, how to spot them and how to get out of one.

What is a rip current?

 A rip current, according to NOAA, is when waves break strongly in some locations and weakly in others, causing circulation cells.  These circulation cells cause narrow streams of water to move quickly away from shore, forming the rip currents.

Where are rip currents usually found?

According to scientific research, rip currents can be found at just about any shore break.  Wherever there are breaking waves, there could possibly be rip currents.  They can form at sand bar breaks, or near solid structures like piers or jetties.

Are rip currents really that fast?

Rip Current survival guide Slyde HandboardsYes and no.  Most rip currents are measured at speeds between 1 and 2 feet per second, but there are exceptions.  While most weaker rip currents are mostly dangerous to weak swimmers, even good swimmers can have problems.  NOAA reports that rip current speeds up to 8 feet per second have been measured, which is faster than an Olympic swimmer can sprint.  This means that even a strong swimmer may not be able to swim out of a very strong rip current.

How strong or fast a rip current is will typically depend on the tide and surf.  High tides and more powerful surf conditions tend to make rip currents stronger and more dangerous.

Will a rip current pull me all the way out to sea?

While some rip currents may pull a swimmer further than others, it is unlikely that one could pull someone miles out to sea.  According to NOAA, rip currents will pull swimmers out just past the surf, or possibly as far as hundreds of yards offshore.

What does a rip current look like?

There are a few identifying characteristics of rip currents that you can keep an eye out for next time you're heading out for a session.  These include:

  • Particularly choppy water.
  • A section of water that is a different color than the surrounding ocean.
  • Seaweed, foam or debris moving in a line away from shore.
  • A break in the shore's wave pattern.

While these will likely indicate that there is a rip current present, sometimes there are no identifications at all.  NOAA reports that polarized sunglasses can help surfers spot these clues.

How can I avoid rip currents?

Always follow these safety guidelines to help prevent an unexpected run in with a rip current:

  • Swim with a buddy, or have an extra set of eyes keeping track of your location in the ocean.
  • If you're feeling unsure about a shorebreak, particularly if there are no lifeguards present, don't feel ashamed in sitting the session out.
  • If there are lifeguards present, be sure to follow their instruction. ¬†It's for your own safety!

What should I do if I'm caught in a rip current?

  • Don't panic! ¬†Focus on conserving your energy. ¬†You will need it!Rip Current Survival Guide Slyde Handboards
  • While it is instinct, try not to fight the current. ¬†It will only tire you out and reduce your chance of swimming out of the rip current.
  • Swim out of the current horizontally, following the shoreline. ¬†When you are out of the rip current, you can safely swim toward shore.
  • If swimming out of the rip current isn't possible, calmly float or tread water until you are safely out of the current.
  • If treading water is not a possibility, begin waving your arms and calling yourself. ¬†Try to draw attention to yourself as much as possible.

How can I help someone caught in a rip current?

If you see someone struggling in a rip current, let a lifeguard know immediately.  If there are no lifeguards present, find someone with a cell phone to dial 911.  While waiting for emergency responders, you can throw the victim a floating object and instruct them on how to float out of the rip current.

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