A powerful rip current swept up most members of a rugby team during a post-practice cool-down swim at a South African beach. One player drowned, and five of his teammates are missing and presumed dead.
“It highlights the need for people to understand rip currents and how to react when caught in one,” said Craig Lanbinon, a spokesman for South Africa’s National Sea Rescue Institute (NSRI).
Labinon said members of the Motherwell Rugby Football Club were the majority of the 21 swimmers swept out to sea Sunday at Blue Water Bay Beach in Port Elizabeth. Lifeguards were able to save 15 people. A South African Air Force helicopter is searching for the missing rugby players, along with NSRI rescue swimmers and police divers.
The team and members of the public were within a safe swimming zone when the current formed. Labinon said there had not been a drowning at that beach for more than 40 years. He called it “a freak accident” and said it is a reminder of how unpredictable rip currents can be.
“It is a real and present danger for swimmers here in South Africa and around the world,” he said.
While rip currents are one of the major causes of the 15 to 20 drownings in South Africa each year, it is unusual for so many people to be killed at one time. Labinon says many of the players may have drowned because of trying to help or hold onto other people.
“I can only imagine there may have been confusion, chaos and panic after the current formed so suddenly and without warning,” he said.
Swimmers who get caught in a rip current are advised to try to relax and focus on keeping their heads above water, rather than trying to fight against the current and swim toward shore. Labinon, a trained rescue swimmer, says swimmers should allow the current to carry them out to sea, then at the earliest opportunity escape the current by swimming parallel to the shore and let the waves help carry them back.