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