As hundreds of thousands of people flock to the nation's beaches this holiday weekend, safety advocates are warning of the dangers of rip currents, a little understood but common phenomenon that claims more than 100 victims in the U.S. annually.
Lifeguard groups say that rip current drownings are more likely to occur at unguarded beaches, often because municipalities have opted not to pay for the expense of hiring full-time lifeguards.
A lack of lifeguards appears to have been a factor in at least three rip-current related drownings in South Florida earlier this month. A Georgia couple vacationing in Lantana Beach drowned after the woman, who was swimming in an unguarded stretch of beach, was caught up a rip current and her husband tried to rescue her. A third death occurred in Ft. Lauderdale when a young man went swimming in rough waters after lifeguards had left the beach for the day.
Lifeguards say the drownings also illustrate a lack of public awareness of a phenomenon that is responsible for 80 percent of beach rescues and has claimed at least 181 lives in Florida over the last decade, according the National Weather Service data.
"If people were out on the beach and the word 'shark' was used, they'd clear the water without a doubt, but to hear the word rip current, a lot of times, it has little effect…and it is just as deadly," said Gerry Falconer, a lieutenant with Miami Beach Ocean Rescue and acting president of the southeastern region of the United States Lifesaving Association, a national organization for lifeguards.
Rip currents are not unique to Florida's coastline. Weather experts say the phenomenon can occur at any beach with breaking waves from the California coast to the Great Lakes to the shores of Long Island and Cape Cod.
A rip current forms when water rushes through a low point in a sandbar. The channeled force of the current can drag swimmers away from the shoreline at a rate of up to 8 miles an hour.
"People are being pulled away from shore – in a sense like a treadmill - they are not able to get back in and, in most cases, due to their physical conditioning, or distance from the shore, or their swimming ability, the rip current takes a lot of out of them, and which then leads to potential fatalities," said Falconer.
A 2005 20/20 investigation highlighted the problem of drownings along the unguarded beaches of Florida's Panhandle. ABC News found that officials in Walton County, Florida had resisted allocating any public funds to hire lifeguards to protect the hundreds of thousands of tourists who visit its 26 miles of white sandy beach annually.
Eight people drowned in one day in 2003 – known as Black Sunday – including retired CNN correspondent Larry LaMotte of Atlanta, Georgia and Ken Brindley of Conway, Arkansas who were vacationing with their families. LaMotte had gone in the water to rescue his son who was caught in a rip current and got swept up himself. Brindley, seeing LaMotte in distress, went in to help but could not make it out.
LaMotte's wife Sandee told ABC News that the families had been completely unaware of the danger.
"Here we are, two families, two husbands, two fathers leaving behind two sets of children all because we didn't realize that were in danger playing here at the water's shore," said LaMotte in a 20/20 interview in 2005 at the location of the drowning.