Dangerous rip currents claim at least 100 lives a year near beaches around the world – more than 10 times higher than deaths from shark attacks — but few people know anything about rip currents or how to recognize one, according to a Texas A&M University study.
Chris Houser and Christian Brannstrom, professors in the Department of Geography at Texas A&M, say that as millions of college students are about to hit the beach for spring break, they are at risk because of lack of knowledge about rip currents.
Rip currents are fast-moving flows of water that can carry even the strongest swimmers away from the shore. They can form almost anywhere and are also common near man-made objects such as jetties, piers, rock groins and other structures.
Many people think rip currents occur in the area where wave breaking is most intense, but that is rarely true, the authors say, and it is one reason why swimmers can get pulled into a rip current. They have been measured as fast as 8 feet per second, which is faster than any Olympic swimmer, and many are strong enough to actually form trenches in the ocean floor.
“The general public has probably heard of rip currents, but very few people know much about them,” Houser explains.
“We have shown photographs to people and ask them to spot where the rip current is, and almost no one correctly identifies the correct location. We once saw a Florida couple put their kids directly into a rip current off the beach despite signs that warned of rip currents on that beach. They later said they didn’t understand the sign, and we found that is a common problem – beach signs can be confusing and not much help in helping people locate rip currents.”
Working with funding from the Texas Sea Grant College Program, Houser and Brannstrom have studied how several Texas beach locations, especially those around Corpus Christi-Aransas Pass and the Galveston areas, warn beachgoers about rip currents and the type of signs being used. They found that only 13 percent of respondents could spot a rip current or find the correct location of where they should swim on that particular beach.
They have examined wording and images on signs and how well people understand them, and they have also studied attitudes about beaches from students who are on study abroad programs in foreign countries, and the results were eye-opening: only 7 in 300 respondentsselected a beach location based on safety criteria. The rest opted for a beach “that was selected because that’s where the others in the group were going,” Houser says.
He offers these tips for beach safety: always swim on a beach that has lifeguards; pay attention to all warning signs on the beach, especially those that have red warning flags about dangerous conditions in that area; never swim in areas where it is posted that swimming is not allowed in that location; and watch what you drink – too much alcohol is a leading cause of drownings.
“Almost all lifeguard associations say that about 80 percent of their rescues involve rip currents,” Houser adds.
“If you get caught in one, don’t panic and don’t try to swim against it. Swim parallel to the shore and you will eventually get into calm water. You have to remember this: rip currents can be killers.”