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What are rip currents?

A rip current or rip is a kind of water current which occurs in shore or near beaches with breaking waves. It is described as a strong and narrow current of water which is hard to see due to an absence of breaking waves.

It moves directly away from the shore and can be recognized only by a ripple on the surface of the water. Experts define it as a ‘river’ flowing out to the sea which has the strongest current near the surface. Some people often confusef rip currents with rip tides, which is a different type of current. A rip tide is a rapid movement of tidal water across the entryway of estuaries, inlets, and harbors.

Mostly seen in the Gulf, East, and West Coasts as well as in shores of the Great Lakes, rip currents are so powerful they can reach top speeds of eight feet per second. They can even move faster than the strongest Olympic swimmers.


One Dangerous Grasp

Rip currents are dangerous to people trapped in their grasp. People often who get caught in its deadly embrace instinctively attempt to swim straight back to shore. However, that’s a wasted effort and puts people at risk of drowning from exhaustion while fighting against the water’s movement. Panic and exhaustion are the leading cause of death for people trapped in rip currents.

Every year lifeguards rescue hundreds of thousands of beach goers from rip currents in the US alone. According to the US Lifesaving Association (USLA), an estimated 100 people die at the hands of rip currents worldwide, with almost half of all those being recorded in the US.

Based on USLA data, almost half of all lifeguard rescues are related to rip currents. Meanwhile, sharks only kill about 6 people annually around the world.


Rip currents in Lake Michigan

Behind Lake Michigan, serene beauty and picturesque beaches hide a deadly secret. Local authorities in Michigan claim that rip currents are the most dangerous occurrence when swimming the lake’s waters. Today, officials urge beach goers to enter the water with caution.


How Rip Currents Work

When rip currents occur, they form a narrow, strong tide that flows away from the shores. Nonetheless, there are different types of rip currents that form in a variety ways. They occur in places where there are breaks in a sandbar where water is funneled out to the sea. However, the strongest rip currents form in tight spots like jetties, piers, and groins.


Factors That Form Rip Currents

Factors that help form rip currents include the tide, weather, how the waves break from the shore, and the shape of the beach. Most rip currents form in certain beaches while others almost never see these dangerous currents.

The unpredictability of rip currents can carry unwary swimmers out to sea without warning. These strong currents usually move one to two feet per second with stronger rip currents reaching 8 feet per second. At that rate, even the fastest swimmer’s (Michael Phelps) stroke is about 6.6 feet/second and can’t contend with this natural phenomena.


How to Recognize Rip Currents

Local authorities keep reminding swimmers to enter the water cautiously. Avoidance is the key to prevent any accidents in the beach. It is important for swimmers to test the water before heading to deeper areas. Looking up weather updates and talking to lifeguards about the water conditions can further help prevent accidents.

Scientists have been observing and studying rip currents for over a century. Today, modern technology helps track rip current movement and speed. Still, even with the advancement of technology, no one can predict when rip currents will appear.

Rip currents often hide in deep sandbars that may look like calm spaces in the water. Turbulent breaking waves often appear along the sides of this calmer water. According to USLA look for the following signs for rip currents in the lake:

  • Water with different color from the rest of the sea
  • An area of uneven water
  • A short and interval break in the incoming waves
  • Debris, seaweed or a line of foam moving out to sea


Lifesaving Tips

If you ever find yourself in an unfortunate event and you get caught in a rip current remember not to fight with the waves. Instead swim parallel to the shore and, once out of the water’s pull, swim back to land at an angle.  Do not panic and if you can’t escape the current try to float or tread water until help can get to you.


If you’re heading to the beach, make sure to stay alert. And look great doing so while carrying your beach gear with this Great Lakes Girl sling bag.