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. According to the United States Lifesaving Association, a national organization for lifeguards , more than two thirds of rip-current drowning in 2010 occurred at unguarded beaches. A weak economy has added an additional challenge Tom Gill, captain of the Virginia Beach Lifesaving Service and a spokesperson for the USLA, says there are "battles" going on around the country to avoid staffing cuts and keep lifeguards on the beaches. "Lifeguards are not immune from the budget cuts that are affecting public safety agencies across the country."
Lifeguards say the drownings also illustrate a lack of public awareness of a phenomenon that is responsible for 80 percent of beach rescues. Rip currents claimed at least 72 lives in 2010, according to USLA figures, but Gill says the true number is probably higher because the USLA depends on voluntary self-reporting by local agencies for its statistics. In 2011, rip currents have already claimed lives in Virginia Beach, Myrtle Beach, S.C., and Bradley Beach, N.J.
"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 president of the southeastern region of the USLA.
Rip currents are not unique to the Atlantic coastline. Weather experts say the phenomenon can occur at any beach with breaking waves, whether on the California coast, the Great Lakes or the Gulf of Mexico.
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.
Panhandle lifeguards say that Walton County and other Panhandle communities have made good strides to hire lifeguards and raise tourists' awareness since the "20/20" broadcast, though they remain concerned about the lack of lifeguards at dozens other public beaches across the state, including beaches at 38 state parks.
"This is our backyard and we need to protect it. We're inviting guests and friends and families to come see us here and enjoy it, and we have to keep an eye on them," said Bill Soltz, a certified lifeguard and USLA advisor in Pensacola. "You wouldn't have a town without a police force or a fire department to protect against those incidents, I don't see why you would have a beach with open water and not protect the people utilizing that."
Lifeguards insist that the safest option for inexperienced ocean swimmers is to swim at a beach with lifeguards. For beachgoers who find themselves caught in a rip current, they offer these potentially life-saving tips:
• Remain calm.
• Don't try to swim against the current.
• Try to swimming parallel to the shoreline to get out of the current.
• When out of the current, swim at an angle away from the current, towards the shore.
• If you are unable to swim out of the current, float or calmly tread water.