Four people drowned after being caught in rip currents over the weekend — here's how to survive if you get caught in one

Shutterstock/Elena ArrigoRip currents sometimes appear to be calm patches in between the waves.
  • At least four people drowned over the weekend after being caught in rip currents while swimming at North Carolina beaches.
  • Rip currents are dangerous currents that pull people out to sea and can move faster than Olympic swimmers in the water.
  • In general, you can escape a rip current by swimming parallel to shore. But since not all currents go straight out, sometimes it’s easier to swim one direction instead of the other.

Over the past weekend, at least four people drowned after being caught in rip currents while swimming at North Carolina beaches.

It’s a tragic reminder that, beautiful as it is, the ocean can be dangerous. Two of the people who died were trying to save other swimmers, according to the News & Observer, a local newspaper.

Rip currents, which are sometimes referred to using the obsolete term “rip tides,” are coastal phenomena that occur when a channel of ocean water starts flowing away from shore and out to sea. These currents often appear to be calm patches in between the waves at the beach. As the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration explains, these currents are common – it’s when they become particularly fast-moving that they are dangerous.

And these fast-moving currents are dangerous, responsible for more fatalities than any other shore zone hazard.

Generally, the currents travel through the surf and past the wave-breaking zone. They can be as narrow as 10 or 20 feet, but also might stretch out to 200 feet wide. A fast-moving rip current can pull faster than 5 mph, which is faster than Olympic swimmers can move – meaning that swimming against the current is a bad idea.

It’s important to inform yourself of potential risks before getting in the water. You can check your local beach forecast for rip current risks, and always look for warning flags at the beach. Also, beaches with lifeguards are much safer.

But it’s still possible you’ll encounter a rip current. If that happens, here’s what to do.

NOAA

Surviving a rip current

The most important thing to remember if you think you’re caught in a rip current is not to panic. Don’t try to fight it by swimming straight to shore.

That can be hard to remember if you feel like you’re being pulled out to sea. But remember that the current is one channel in the water and it doesn’t go on forever. According to NOAA, it’s a myth that these currents pull people under – they just pull you further out int0 the ocean, not under.

Your two priorities are to make sure you stay above water and to get out of the current whenever you can.

If you’re trying to swim in and get tired – but don’t appear to be making progress – it’s likely you’re caught in a current that’s going out to sea.

The common wisdom for what to do when you’re caught in a rip current is to swim parallel to shore until you can escape.

This isn’t wrong, but it’s good to know that many rip currents come in at an angle – the general idea should be to stay alongside the shore, but swim perpendicular to the current as much as you can “at an angle away from the current and towards the shore,” according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association.

It might be easier to swim one direction instead of the other. There is also research indicating that some currents follow a circular pattern, going out and then travelling back towards the beach. That’s led some researchers to argue that it may be safer to try to float with the current instead of struggling against it.

However, this advice is controversial and not always effective, as not all currents circulate back.

But treading water while assessing the situation may help if you’re feeling tired. It shouldn’t feel as if you are going upstream. If you need to tread water for a minute while figuring out which direction to swim to get out more effectively, do so. But then get to safety.

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