Danger in the water; how to spot and avoid rip currents at the beach

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AUSTIN (KXAN) — Now that the summer heat is here, you may be trying to escape it with a trip to the Texas shoreline.

Lurking among the crashing waves may be a strong current attempting to take you out of your comfort zone, a rip current.

“Rip currents are like rivers of water that pull people from close to shore, away from shore past the breaking waves,” said Greg Dusek with the National Ocean Service.

“Any beaches where you see waves breaking, you can potentially have rip currents,” he continued.

They form when you have changes in the way waves brake near the shore, either due to waves of different sizes coming together, or waves encountering surfaces or objects like jetty’s, piers or sand bars.

The risk for rip currents goes way up when waves are large or during times of low tide. However, strong rip currents can form even with waves as small as two or three feet high.

“You can go from an area where you’re touching the bottom and a rip can pull you away and you can no longer touch and if you’re not a strong swimmer obviously that’s going to be trouble,” said Dusek.

Rip currents are so dangerous because they can catch you by surprise.

“What we see most often is someone starts getting pulled from shore and even if they are a strong swimmer if you start panicking and if you start trying to fight against the current, swim straight back to shore you’re going to tire yourself out and that in turn is what can lead to drowning,” he added.

They are responsible for around 100 drownings a year.

NOAA Image of a rip current highlighted with green dye (COURTESY: National Ocean Service)

Spotting a rip current

To spot a rip current before even setting foot in the water stand away from the coastline at an elevated position and look toward the ocean.

Look for changes in patterns of the breaking waves, gaps in a line of breaking waves and any dark spots in the water.

If there’s seafoam or floating sand, watch the direction it moves, if it’s being pulled away from the beach that is a big indicator of a rip current.

If you get caught in a rip current

If you find yourself getting pulled away from shore: relax, don’t panic.

If you are a strong swimmer, swim parallel to shore until you don’t feel that pull anymore then swim back to land and follow the breaking waves.

If you’re not a strong swimmer. Float and wave your arms, yell and wait for help to arrive.

Rip currents won’t pull you down, only out to sea.

In Depth: Rip current forecasts

Just this spring NOAA launched it’s first ever national rip current forecast model. This allows the National Weather Service to provide rip current forecasts for each hour of the day up to 6 days in advance for each mile of shoreline. To access the Rip Current Forecast: Click Here

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