In the course of a year, millions of Americans head for warm climates with waterfront real estate such as islands and beaches. Unfortunately, a leading cause of death for visitors in oceanfront destinations is drowning so I want to address two major areas of water safety.
When on vacation it’s not uncommon for travelers to consume alcoholic beverages and this can become a problem as warm weather and heat can increase the effects of alcohol, contributing to dehydration and increased fatigue during high-intensity exercise. Some physical effects of ingesting alcohol are weakening of the pumping force of the heart, decreased coordination, slowed reaction time, muscle relaxation, lack of behavioral inhibitions and impaired judgment which when lounging on a beach, might prove perfectly acceptable. However should the intrepid inebriated individual decide to participate in physical activities such as swimming after tossing down a few umbrella decorated drinks the risk of injury or death can be dramatically increased.
A rip current is a strong flow of water returning seaward from the shore. It is often called a riptide, rip current, a rip, or an undertow. Rip currents can be dangerous for both swimmers and waders by dragging one away from the beach and causing exhaustion when the swimmer fights the current. They occur most often when the tide is low and there are strong onshore winds with rough surf. Increased wind blowing shoreward combined with the pressure of incoming water pressure push more water toward the shore and create a situation wherein the returning water has to find an alternate means to flow back into the sea. Typically, this water will flow parallel to the shore until it finds an easier route away from the shore either through lessened incoming water pressure or a physical feature on the beach that lends itself to facilitating outflow such as a pier, jetty or a split in a barrier sandbar or reef. This strong outflow is usually not terribly wide but is powerful at the surface and will prevent incoming swells and waves from being too pronounced, actually creating a deceptively inviting area of calm water for swimmers.
Obviously, it is advisable to look for the existence of a rip current before heading into the water. Some indicators to look for on the beach prior to entering the water are wave actions inconsistent with the surrounding area such as unusually calm waters, discoloration caused by the strong outgoing current carrying excess debris and soil and waves that don’t wash as far up on the shore as the surrounding area. If you are caught in a riptide, DO NOT PANIC. Understanding that they are generally narrow in width and are simply an outgoing current, float do not struggle. Let the riptide carry you out beyond the breakers and it will dissipate. If you prefer, swim parallel to the beach not directly toward shore. In this way you will cross the current and are less likely to exhaust yourself.
Interestingly, rip currents are used by surfers and lifeguards as they ride the outgoing current to carry them away from shore faster than they would normally be able go to by paddling through the waves.