With hurricane season under way, beachgoers should be even more careful about potential rip currents, according to the United States Lifesaving Association President Chris Brewster. He was a professional lifeguard in San Diego for 22 years, and answers a selection of your beach safety questions in this online Q+A.
Dan in Maine asks: I'm shocked to learn that so many people drowned on "Black Sunday." But I'm curious, can rip currents happen when the water seems "peaceful," or do they only happen on rougher days?
Chris Brewster: Dan, rip currents are primarily caused by two forces: 1) waves striking a beach (commonly called surf), which push water up the slope of the beach; and 2) gravity, pulling that water back. They are powerful, channeled currents of water flowing away from shore. If there are no waves (dead calm), there will normally be no rip currents. If there is any wave action at all, even very subtle, there is the possibility of rip currents. Rip currents generally become stronger and more prevalent as surf size increases.
Don't be fooled by nice weather. Waves are caused by wind on the water, but they may be formed by storms hundreds of miles away from the beach. That's why you can have strong surf and rip currents on calm, sunny days. It's also what makes prediction of rip current activity so challenging and why we encourage people to always swim near a lifeguard.
Shawn in Oregon writes: Is there anyway to determine if a rip tide is present from shore. Can it be seen and detected in a manner that it can be avoided?
Chris Brewster: Shawn, many people use the terms rip current and rip tide interchangeably, but they are actually not the same thing. Rip currents, which were the focus of this story, are primarily caused by waves and gravity. Different, very powerful currents can also be caused by tides, for example at the entrance to bays and estuaries where the water rushes in and out when the tide changes. Rip currents are not rip tides. Now, here's the answer to your question:
There are ways that a careful and experienced observer can recognize rip currents from shore. First, remember that rip currents often form near structures such as groins, jetties and piers, so those are places to avoid even if you don't recognize the presence of currents. There are some specific clues though:
a channel of churning, choppy water
an area having a notable difference in water color compared to adjacent water
a line of foam, seaweed, or debris moving steadily seaward
a break in the incoming wave pattern
None, one, or more of these clues may indicate the presence of rip currents. Rip currents are not easily identifiable to the average beachgoer. Have a look at the following link for some examples: http://www.usla.org/ripcurrents/
Lynn in Georgia writes: How do I find out which beaches in Florida employs lifeguards and which do not? I had the impression from your segment that it's pretty much a county by county decision, but is there a published Florida tourist map that shows life guarded beaches? And how can I check into lifeguard information in other states?
Chris Brewster: Lynn, unfortunately there is no central source that identifies all of the beaches in Florida or the U.S. that provide lifeguards. There probably should be and we should work on that. Another challenge is that where lifeguards are staffed the hours and seasons of lifeguard protection vary. The United States Lifesaving Association has a certification program for lifeguard programs which demonstrate that they meet our minimum recommended standards. They are listed on our Web site at: http://www.usla.org/Train+Cert/certagencies.asp. That's probably a good place to start. At least you will know that in the communities listed, there is quality lifeguard protection. You need to find out though if they are staffed at the beach where you will swim. Give them a call.
I would also recommend, when making travel plans, that you ask about lifeguard protection. For example, if you will be staying at a hotel near the beach, why not ask the hotel if lifeguards are provided at the beach and when? Or ask where the nearest lifeguard-protected beach can be found. Another option is to ask local community public safety departments. When you arrive, double-check to make sure the lifeguards are, indeed, on duty.
Sorry, but it does take a little digging on your part to find out. It's frustrating, I know. You don't have to ask if there is a fire department or police department. You can assume they will be there, but lifeguards are a different story.
Angela in North Carolina writes: A few weeks ago we were on vacation at the Outer Banks in N.C. We found an area that had an underwater sandbar and my young children were able to play in the calm water between the sandbar and shore. Is that a bad choice, letting them play in an area like that??
Chris Brewster: Angela, the calm area between the beach and the sandbar can be deceivingly dangerous in some cases. If there are waves present, they will normally push water over the bar, causing pressure to build up in that calm area. Eventually, the pressure may cause a break in the sandbar and what had been a very calm condition can become a very strong offshore current -- a rip current. This can be sudden and unexpected.
If you see any waves offshore, don't assume that the area inside the sandbar will be protected from rip currents. It won't. Keep your kids close to shore, supervise them closely, and swim near a lifeguard.
Patricia in British Columbia writes: With the hurricane season under way and with the prospects that this will be a bad year for hurricanes, how do you think that these storms will impact beach currents?
Chris Brewster: Patricia, hurricanes have two major effects on rip currents. First, they generate waves that are larger than normal. These waves can travel hundreds of miles and affect beaches well outside the immediate influence of the hurricane itself. Generally speaking, larger waves will cause stronger and more prevalent rip currents.
The second impact of hurricanes on rip currents is longer term in nature. Rip currents seem to thrive on uneven conditions in the sea floor near the beach. Hurricane waves can change bottom topography and cause those uneven conditions. So even long after the hurricane waves subside, rip currents may be much more likely to exist after a hurricane, even with gentle surf conditions.
Tyler in Oregon asks: How shallow do you have to stay to be safe from rip currents?
Chris Brewster: Tyler, this is completely a factor of your strength and that of the rip currents themselves. Also, don't forget the power of the waves that cause the rip currents. Rip currents can be strong enough to knock a small child or a weak person off their feet, even in shallow water, but a more likely scenario is this: Breaking waves cause a rush of water up the slope of the beach. Gravity then causes a backrush of water, as it returns to the sea. That uprush and backrush can even knock down a person who was walking on the dry beach, and pull them into the sea. If rip currents are present, they may then pull the person offshore.
The best advice is to be cautious and prudent. Know your limits and respect the ocean. Also, be sure to visit a lifeguard-protected beach and check with the lifeguards on conditions before entering the water.
Eric in Kentucky asks: Chris, These currents make me really nervous. How far out from shore do these currents carry people?
Chris Brewster: Eric, I have seen well-defined rip currents extending more than 1/4 mile from shore. Normally, they begin to dissipate a little outside the breaking waves, but that's not always true. Consider also that as the waves get bigger, they break further offshore. With bigger waves, the extent (and power) of rip currents intensifies.
Derby in Walton County, Florida asks: Thank you so much for this report, and for taking our questions. My question is: What can lifeguards do to help people in rip currents?
Chris Brewster: Derby, lifeguards provide several key roles. The first and most important is prevention. Lifeguards use a variety of strategies, including signs, flags, and personal warnings to move people away from hazardous areas and to encourage them to use safer areas. No lifeguard service is fully effective without a tremendous emphasis on prevention, but like any prevention efforts, these strategies are not fully effective without preparedness to respond when they fail.
Lifeguards are trained to recognize the existence of rip currents and they prioritize their water observation in those areas. When they see someone being affected by a rip current, they will try to warn them away. If doesn't work, lifeguards perform a rescue. If they are swimming, they use a rescue floatation device towed behind them and the lifeguard will usually swim to the victim using the power of the rip current itself. Then they'll calm the victim, provide the floatation device, and tow the victim back to shore by first swimming parallel to shore out of the rip current, and then in to shore. The United States Lifesaving Association has calculated the chance that a person will die by drowning while attending a beach protected by USLA affiliated lifeguards at 1 in 18 million (.0000055 percent). For more statistics, including for individual beaches, please visit: http://www.usla.org/Statistics/public.asp.
Shelly in Indiana writes: Since we don't live by any large bodies of water here, I am concerned if I take my family on vacation they won't know how to handle themselves in the ocean. What can I do to keep my family safe?
Chris Brewster: Shelly, it's good that "20/20" has brought this concern to your attention. With all of the safety advice you and your family probably try to remember, focusing on tips about rip currents may seem daunting, especially when you may only visit a surf beach occasionally. Here's what I'd recommend:
Make sure your family knows how to swim
Remember that swimming in the ocean is much more challenging than in a pool or lake
Before visiting a surf beach, check the USLA Web site (www.usla.org) for safety tips and a reminder about rip currents
Choose a beach that has lifeguard protection
Check with the lifeguards before entering the water for their safety advice.
Dennis in Illinois asks: If you are pulled out to sea in a rip current, how do you save yourself from drowning?
Chris Brewster: Dennis, the first thing to remember is what not to do. That makes it easier to understand what you should do. If you sense you are being pulled away from shore or you are swimming back to shore and making no progress, you're probably in a rip current. If you try to fight it, the rip current will often wear you out and you'll get no closer to shore anyway. Think of it as an aquatic treadmill with no off switch. You want to step to the side, but in the case of a rip current, you want to swim to the side. Swim sideways, parallel to shore until you feel you are out of the pull of the current. Then swim in. If you've taken our advice and selected a beach with lifeguards, signal them for assistance by waving an arm, but concentrate on staying afloat. If you can't swim to the side for some reason, tread water and let the rip current carry you out. This is a more scary option because you are pulled further from shore, but the rip current normally dissipates outside the breaking surf, then you can swim in. Another key: try not to panic. If you are a decent swimmer, you can tread water for a long time. Remember that.
Reid in Boston asks: Can rip currents actually pull a person downward, under the water, or just out to sea?
Chris Brewster: Reid, rip currents pull people offshore, not underwater; but if you are pulled offshore and can't get back in, you may, of course, submerge.
H. J. in Florida writes: As someone that lives near the beach in Okaloosa County, FL. (next to the Walton County where the news story was located) I must take exception to the point that the beaches are dangerous just because there are no lifeguards. There is a widely used flag system (state standard) that indicates the danger status of the beach. There are signs all over the beach advising tourists of the meaning of the flags. All of the hotels, motels, condos, and other rental properties hand out information about the dangers, what the flags mean and what to do if you are caught in a rip current … I have observed many times when two red flags were flying (beach closed to swimming due to very dangerous conditions) and the swimmers would not even comply with the directions of local law enforcement officers. I cannot understand people that continue to ignore warnings and them cry when they get into trouble. All the lifeguards in the world cannot cure stupidity.
Chris Brewster: H.J. you voice an opinion I've heard occasionally that the people who are caught in rip currents, despite the presence of flags and signs, have only themselves to blame. In most cases, I don't agree. Sure, there are the occasional daredevils who are going to take very high risks, but most of the drowning deaths in your area (and others), with which I am familiar, involve prudent and responsible people who just didn't understand a danger present at all surf beaches or underestimated it.
I helped the state of Florida design its flag warning system, which is based primarily on the International Life Saving Federation standard. The ILS flag warning standard states, in part, "… these flags are only to be used on beaches where lifesavers qualified to ILS standards are on duty. Flags are not an acceptable substitute for properly trained and equipped rescuers, but rather a tool for their use." Flags and signs are like stop signs or traffic signals, but they are less well understood because you don't have to have a license or take a test to use a swimming area. As we all know, traffic signals can help reduce traffic accidents, but they are no substitute for public safety services.
Imagine if in your area, there were no fire department, but only fire safety education. Would that be OK? How about if there were no police department, but only crime safety education? Communities like yours generate tremendous income from tourism that is focused on the beach and use of the adjacent ocean. In my view, that comes with a concurrent responsibility to provide reasonable levels of safety to those who visit. Since United States Lifesaving Association statistics demonstrate that the chance of death by drowning in an area protected by lifeguards is one in 18 million, I think you can see why many communities around the country, particularly where tourism is high, protect their residents and tourists alike by providing lifeguards.