Rip Currents: How to stay safe

17-year-old Paige Merical drowned earlier this year in a rip current. Her parents have made it their mission to educate beach-goers up and down the coast about the dangers of rip currents.

On average, 100 people die every year from rip currents in the US. Here's a few safety tips.

August 9, 2019 

Last weekend, 40 people were rescued from rip currents at Wrightsville Beach, despite red flags indicating that conditions were dangerous. There have been seven deaths in North Carolina from drowning due to rip currents so far this year, including teenager Paige Merical. Her parents, John and Suzi Merical, embarked on a public education effort along the coast in her honor. Their message? Don’t fight the rip. 

Rip currents are fast-moving channels of water that can pull even the strongest swimmers away from shore. Often, swimmers will panic and fight against the current. This leaves them exhausted and more vulnerable to drowning. Here are some other safety tips:

Don’t swim alone

Having a second person in the water with you increases your chances of getting help.

Float on your back & call for help

Our first instinct might be to panic when we’re sucked away from shore. But that’s how drowning happens. Floating with the current will prevent you from overtiring.

Get outside the current’s boundaries

Not all rip currents eject away from shore in a straight line. Some are circular, some are diagonal to the shore and some might even push you towards the shore. But all rip currents have a definite boundary. Often you can swim parallel to the beach to escape the current. However, if you can’t break free, it’s better to float.

Rescue wisely

Many drownings occur when people on shore attempt to rescue someone caught in a rip current. Always inform a lifeguard if you think someone needs help or direct the swimmer from shore. If you do enter the water, bring something that floats, like a boogie board.

How do rip currents form?

We’ve all watched waves crash and recede. When water gets piled on the beach, it wants to escape back into the ocean. The water finds narrow channels made by sand bars and shoots through them quickly, like a thumb pressed against a hose. Offshore storms, high winds and repetitive wave patterns can lead to more rip currents by piling up an excess of water on the beach. As that extra water recedes, it ejects quickly along sand bar channels.

Can you spot a rip current from shore?

There are a couple subtle indicators of rip currents. If you see debris or sea foam moving quickly away from shore, or pushed in a particular pattern, there may be a rip current driving it. Rip currents might result in irregular wave patterns or areas with churning water. Lighter or darker-colored water might also indicate a deep channel with a rip current.

Keep up-to-date from the latest safety research and information from these organizations:

—Rossie Izlar

Rossie Izlar is a digital producer on the UNC-TV Science team.