As waves travel from deep to shallow water, they will break near the shoreline. When waves break strongly in some locations and weakly in others, this can cause circulation cells which are seen as rip currents(backflow): narrow, fast-moving belts of water traveling offshore.
Why backflow is dangerous?
Rip currents are the leading surf hazard for all beachgoers. They are particularly dangerous for weak or non-swimmers. Rip current speeds are typically 1-2 feet per second. However, speeds as high as 8 feet per second have been measured–this is faster than an Olympic swimmer can sprint! Thus, rip currents can sweep even the strongest swimmer out to sea.
Over 100 drownings due to rip currents occur every year in the United States. More than 80% of water rescues on surf beaches are due to rip currents.
Rip currents can occur at any surf beach with breaking waves, including the Great Lakes.
How to recognize the backflow
look for any of these clues:
- a channel of churning, choppy water
- an area having a notable difference in water color
- a line of foam, seaweed, or debris moving steadily seaward
- a break in the incoming wave pattern
None, one, or more of the above clues may indicate the presence of rip currents (backflows). Rip currents are often not readily or easily identifiable to the average beachgoer. For your safety, be aware of this major surf zone hazard. Polarized sunglasses make it easier to see the rip current clues provided above.
How to get out of the backflow:
Learn how to swim!
- Never swim alone.
- Be cautious at all times, especially when swimming at unguarded beaches. If in doubt, don’t go out!
- Whenever possible, swim at a lifeguard protected beach.
- Obey all instructions and orders from lifeguards.
- If caught in a rip current, remain calm to conserve energy and think clearly.
- Don’t fight the current. Swim out of the current in a direction following the shoreline. When out of the current, swim towards shore.
- If you are unable to swim out of the rip current, float or calmly tread water. When out of the current, swim towards shore.
- If you are still unable to reach shore, draw attention to yourself: face the shore, wave your arms, and yell for help.
- If you see someone in trouble, get help from a lifeguard. If a lifeguard is not available, have someone call 9-1-1 . Throw the rip current victim something that floats and yell instructions on how to escape. Remember, many people drown while trying to save someone else from a rip current.
Other safety tips include:
- Use lifeguarded beaches during summer months. Scheduled hours of lifeguarded beaches may vary.
- Non-swimmers should use Coast Guard-approved flotation vests, even while wading.
- Do not swim in the ocean alone – take a buddy with you
- Stay Sober – don’t swim while intoxicated. Alcohol can affect your judgment and your body temperature – impairing your ability to swim.
- Don’t swim during rough seas. Broken necks and paralysis have resulted from swimmers being thrown into the ocean bottom headfirst.
- The force of big waves crashing at the shore’s edge can pick you up and throw you into the sand. This may result in a dislocated shoulder or knee.
- Due to dangerous currents, never swim in the inlets.
- Do not swim at night or near fishing piers.
- Children should swim only with adult supervision.
- Know the various types of ocean currents and how to get out of them.
- Watch the weather. Storms and squalls come up quickly.
- Don’t swim during thunderstorms; lightening is extremely dangerous and does strike the beach.
- Don’t wear shiny objects when swimming – these objects may attract sharks and other fish.
- Watch for jellyfish. If stung, seek first aid if needed. Don’t rub sand on the stings. Spraying or pouring vinegar on the sting site often reduces the pain. If you don’t have vinegar, try ammonia or denatured alcohol.
- Do not swim near surfers – surfboard fins can cut you.