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Rip Currents: How to Spot, Avoid, and Escape Them

EL SEGUNDO, Calif. — It’s getting warmer and now that beaches have reopened after almost two months, people are more eager than ever to head down to the coast to cool down. But, don’t let a day of fun turn deadly by ignoring the No. 1 danger to beachgoers: rip currents.

As a weather forecaster and former reporter in Southern California, I’ve reminded viewers about the dangers of rip currents every single year for more than two decades. Sometimes, I feel I sound like a broken-record. 

 

 

 

At the same time, I think about those viewers out there who may want a refresher, much like CPR for some. I also consider those viewers who feel they’re strong swimmers, but may not be aware there’s a difference between swimming in a calm pool versus choppy ocean water. And, I also consider the thousands of visitors watching me from their hotel, who may be planning to jump in the ocean for the first time. 

This past Sunday, a family’s tragedy reminded me why it’s important to this information.

A father and son got caught in a rip current around Venice Beach. Lifeguards were able to rescue the 10-year-old boy, but not his father, Shad Gaspard who was a well-known WWE wrestler. Gaspard’s body washed up on shore three days later. 

In such a short time, everything changed for Gaspard and his family. What if they had seen my reminder about rip currents? Could it have made a difference, I wonder.  

When you go to the beach, please don’t underestimate the power of rip currents. The reality is rip currents can be unforgiving anywhere in the world. Perhaps, like me, you prefer to swim in warm water like in Mexico, the Caribbean or Asia, instead of our chilly California beaches

Remember, you still need to be careful.  

 

 

Let’s review. 

Rip currents are simply currents that move away from shore. They can occur on the beach throughout the year as the ocean floor gets battered by waves, which can get especially bigger during winter storms. The currents can run really fast or really slow, up to 5 mph. It may not sound that fast, but considering that some Olympic swimmers average about 5 mph, it’s enough to cause a weak swimmer to panic as they’re pulled out. 

Swimmers caught in rip currents account for 80 percent of lifeguard rescues.  

If you’re caught in a rip current, the first thing to do is remain calm. A rip current won’t pull you underwater. It’ll just pull you away from shore. If you feel that you’re able to swim, do so parallel to the shore until you’re out of the current and then swim back to shore at an angle. 

If you feel that you can’t swim, tread or back float, try to wave and yell for help while floating. And remember, stay calm.

Ride out the current until it stops and you’re able to swim parallel to the shore, get away from the current and then swim back to shore.

If you’re on shore and you witness a relative or friend caught in a rip current, don’t jump in to try to save them. Stay onshore. The person helping a swimmer in distress often ends up drowning. If you’re able to throw them a flotation device, do so. If you can’t, get the attention of a lifeguard

To prevent getting caught in one in the first place, look out for rip currents before you get in the water. Stand back and get to a higher elevation so you can see the water surface. They can be the size of two lanes of highway to the length of a football field. They can last from minutes to months depending on what’s causing it. 

Either side of the rip current, there’s usually waves breaking. Watch out for what appears like a hole through the breaking waves. Also, look out for discolored water. The currents usually kick up the sand so the water becomes discolored. 

My best advice is don’t take any chances, even if you’ve been swimming in the beach all your life. Teach your kids to be safe by checking in with a lifeguard to find out the ocean conditions of the day. They’re the experts of the beach. Then, be sure to swim near a lifeguard

I, personally, have never been caught in a life-threatening rip current. I do remember, as a kid, swimming in certain beaches on Guam and feeling as if I wasn’t getting anywhere as I tried to swim back to shore. Luckily, those currents weren’t too strong or too wide so I was able to break away and alert my siblings and cousins. 

Looking back at those days, my father’s advice still resonates with me whenever I go to the beach here in California.  He’d say “don’t ever turn your back on the ocean, don’t curse at it and respect its power.” 

I wish you many safe and fun outings at the beach.

For a visual explanation of rip currents, check out the video in the player above.