Swimming safety: Avoid becoming a victim of rip currents this summer

31 May 2007 | Sgt. Lukas M. Atwell

Summer is here and the beaches are mobbed by sunbathers, swimmers and surfers. While many beachgoers are frightened by skin cancer or shark attacks, few will take steps to protect themselves from the beaches’ deadliest threat.

The United States Lifesaving Association estimates more than 100 people die every year as a result of rip currents.

“Two Marines from (II Marine Expeditionary Force) have already drowned this summer due to rip currents,” said Ronald L. Lanoie, the safety director for the Air Station.

Rip currents account for 80 percent of all rescues performed by lifeguards on surf-beaches in the U.S.

A rip current is a narrow, powerful current of water flowing away from the beach, Lanoie explained. Rip currents are caused as waves hit the beach, causing water to accumulate near the shore. The water then seeks the path of least resistance back into the sea, creating a pressure toward the sea.

This pressure causes a fast-moving current of water to push out into the sea from the shoreline, usually starting between two submerged sandbars. All of this happens below the surface, making the rip current hard to detect.

“Rip currents are terrifying because they catch you off-guard… one minute you’re swimming along in the surf, the next you're being dragged out to sea at top speed,” Lanoie said. “Unlike violent, crashing waves, you probably won’t notice a rip current until it’s too late.”

Rip currents have several warning signs swimmers should be aware of, according to Lanoie. Look for a channel of churning or choppy water or an area with a noticeable difference in water color. Also, avoid breaks in the incoming wave pattern and lines of debris or seaweed steadily moving out to sea.

The National Weather Service also recommends people avoid swimming near piers and jetties because permanent rip currents often exist near these structures.

If swimmers are caught in a rip current, they should remain calm and try to conserve their energy, according to Lanoie. They should never try to fight against the current.

“Think about it like a treadmill you can’t shut off,” Lanoie explained. “You want to step to the side of it. In a rip current, you should swim across the current in a direction following the shoreline.”

If a swimmer cannot escape the current, they should remain calm and try to float until the current subsides offshore, according to Lanoie. They should then swim toward the shore at an angle away from the current.

Perhaps the most important protection a swimmer may take to the beach is the knowledge of how to spot and survive a rip current. With increasing coastal populations and more people heading to the beaches every summer, rip currents will continue to be a deadly hazard. The time you take to understand rip currents will help you protect yourself and your family when visiting the beach.

For more information, visit the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Web Site at and search rip currents. Daily beach conditions are also broadcast during most local weather forecasts.

Headquarters Marine Corps