What is a rip current and why are they so dangerous? What to know

A recent drowning incident involving a rip current has sparked renewed concerns about the dangerous swimming conditions

What is a rip current and why are they so dangerous? What to know

A recent drowning incident involving a rip current has sparked renewed concerns about the dangerous swimming conditions and what you should do if you end up in one.

The most recent incident involved a Pennsylvania couple who were vacationing in Florida with their six children when they drowned after they were caught in a rip current while swimming, authorities said.

In 2021, a suburban Chicago father died while vacationing in Florida when he tried to help several children, including his own, who were struggling with a rip current near Miramar Beach on the coast of Florida’s panhandle.

Similar situations have been reported outside of Florida, including in lakes like Lake Michigan, where warnings about dangerous swimming conditions are common.

What is a rip current and why are they so dangerous?

Here's an explanation:

What is a rip current?

A rip current is a fast-moving column of water that flows away from the shore toward open water. Officials say swimmers caught in one should remain calm and then swim parallel to the shore to escape the current.

"Rip currents are powerful, channeled currents of water flowing away from shore," according to the National Weather Service. "They typically extend from the shoreline, through the surf zone, and past the line of breaking waves. Rip currents can occur at any beach with breaking waves."

Most often, a rip current forms at low spots or breaks in sandbars or near structures like jetties and piers.

How dangerous is a rip current?

The answer can be dependent on the rip current, but in most cases, rip currents are considered very dangerous.

"Rip currents can be very narrow or extend in widths to hundreds of yards. They can also be very deep that unsuspecting swimmers can step into the channel and sink over their head and drift with the current," the NWS A rip current is a horizontal motion not a vertical motion. Rip currents do not pull people under the water; they pull people away from shore. The rip current is typically the strongest about a foot off of the bottom, which can cause your feet to be knocked out from under you making it feel like something under the water was pulling you. This is where the incorrect term "undertow" comes from.. "The pull of rip currents toward open water varies: sometimes the rip current ends just beyond the line of breaking waves, but sometimes rip currents continue to push hundreds of yards offshore."

There are different risk levels when it comes to rip currents, according to the NWS.

RISK LEVEL HAZARD DESCRIPTION
Low 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 groins, jetties, and piers.
Moderate Wind and/or wave conditions support stronger or more frequent rip currents. Only experienced surf swimmers should enter the water.
High Wind and/or wave conditions support dangerous rip currents. Rip currents are life-threatening to anyone entering the surf.

One thing to note, however, is rip currents don't actually pull people underwater, but rather pull them away from shore.

"The rip current is typically the strongest about a foot off of the bottom, which can cause your feet to be knocked out from under you making it feel like something under the water was pulling you," the NWS reports.

What to do if you caught in a rip current?

According to the NWS, you should "never fight against the current."

"Think of it like a treadmill that cannot be turned off, which you need to step to the side of," the agency advises.

Here's what they say to do:

  • Swim out of the current in a direction following the shoreline. When out of the current, swim at an angle--away from the current--towards shore.
  • If you are unable to swim out of the rip current, float or calmly tread water. When out of the current, swim towards shore.
  • If you are still unable to reach shore, draw attention to yourself by waving your arm and yelling for help.

How do you know if there's a rip current?

In many cases, colored flags will be present at area beaches indicating if there are dangerous swimming conditions. The colors range from green, to yellow, to red.

In Chicago, the colors, according to the Park District, mean:

  • A green flag means that there are no swimming restrictions, swimming is permitted.
  • A yellow flag means that a swim advisory is in place:  swimming is allowed but caution is advised.  
  • A red flag means that a swim ban is in place, swimming is not allowed.  Conditions do not meet safe swimming

In the case of the recent Florida drowning, fire Rescue officials said there were red flags at the beach that day, indicating the possibility of hazardous surf conditions. The National Weather Service office in Melbourne warned on its website Friday of a “high risk” of rip currents all along the Atlantic coast, partly because of higher ocean swells caused by a low-pressure system near the Florida-Georgia state line, said meteorologist Megan Tollefsen.

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