Top Lifeguard Offers Beach Safety Tips

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:

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?

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