Never swim alone

P.E.I.’s chief coro­ner of­fers tips to avoid and es­cape rip cur­rents

The Guardian (Charlottetown) - - OPINION - BY DES­MOND COLOHAN Des­mond Colohan is the chief coro­ner for Prince Ed­ward Is­land.

Last week­end, two un­for­tu­nate souls lost their lives in the Mar­itimes while swim­ming in the ocean close to shore. It ap­pears that both were caught in rip cur­rents, dragged away from the shore and trag­i­cally drowned.

A rip cur­rent (a.k.a. “rip­tide”) is a long, nar­row band of wa­ter that can pull swim­mers away from shore and out to sea in just a few sec­onds. Rip cur­rents can be ex­tremely dan­ger­ous. If you get caught in a rip cur­rent, how you re­act could be the dif­fer­ence be­tween life and death.

Here are some steps you should take to sur­vive a rip cur­rent:

Iden­tify the rip cur­rent: Stay aware and know the warn­ing signs. Avoid chan­nels of wa­ter that look dif­fer­ent from their sur­round­ings. A rip cur­rent can be chop­pier and/or foamier, or it can be a quiet gap in a line of break­ing waves. It may be a slightly dif­fer­ent color than the sur­round­ing wa­ter. Use spe­cial cau­tion close to low tide and in high surf con­di­tions, but be aware that rip cur­rents can hap­pen at any time.

Exit shal­low wa­ter if you feel a rip cur­rent: If you feel a strong pull in shal­low wa­ter, get out. A rip cur­rent is dif­fi­cult to fight once you are chest-deep. If the wa­ter is waist-deep or shal­lower, you should be able to walk to shore (or side­ways out of the cur­rent) if you keep your foot­ing.

Re­main calm: If you get caught in a rip cur­rent, don’t panic. Un­der­stand that a rip cur­rent does not drag you un­der­wa­ter, even if it feels that way when a wave hits you. Rip cur­rents only pull you straight out to sea. Strong swim­mers are not in im­me­di­ate dan­ger of drown­ing un­less they ex­haust them­selves by try­ing to fight the cur­rent.

Call for help if you are a poor swim­mer: Rip cur­rents are es­pe­cially dan­ger­ous to peo­ple who can­not swim well. If you do not think you will be able to reach the shore, get the at­ten­tion of a surf guard or other beach­go­ers by wav­ing your arms and yelling for help. Try­ing to res­cue some­one by swim­ming into a rip cur­rent is very dan­ger­ous. Only trained surf guards should en­ter the wa­ter. Peo­ple on shore should throw you a float­ing ob­ject to hang onto in­stead.

Swim par­al­lel to shore: Most rip cur­rents are less than 10 me­tres wide, al­though they can reach 30-60 me­tres wide. In­stead of try­ing to swim against the cur­rent — which is much stronger than you are — swim par­al­lel to the shore to get out of the cur­rent. The rip cur­rent will carry you fur­ther away from shore as you swim, but don’t panic. If pos­si­ble, look for these signs be­fore choos­ing a di­rec­tion: The long-shore cur­rent, a nor­mal cur­rent mov­ing par­al­lel to the beach, is of­ten strong enough to push you back into the rip cur­rent if you try to swim against it. Check the di­rec­tion of the long-shore cur­rent in ad­vance by ask­ing a surf guard or watch­ing the pat­tern of waves hit­ting the beach. The long­shore cur­rent usu­ally moves par­al­lel to the beach away from the di­rec­tion the waves are com­ing from. Rip cur­rents of­ten form around jet­ties and other struc­tures per­pen­dic­u­lar to the beach. If you are near one of these struc­tures, swim away from it. Swim in the di­rec­tion of the near­est break­ing waves. These mark the edge of the rip cur­rent.

Con­serve en­ergy: If you are not mak­ing any progress by swim­ming, or if you are get­ting tired, con­serve your en­ergy. Float on your back or tread wa­ter in­stead of fight­ing the cur­rent. Once you are past the break­ing waves, the rip cur­rent will slow down and fan out into mul­ti­ple branches, be­com­ing much weaker. If you do not have the en­ergy to make it back to shore, stay afloat and re­lax un­til you are ready to be­gin. Con­tinue to sig­nal for help if there are peo­ple present.

Swim di­ag­o­nally to­ward the shore. Once you are out of the cur­rent, ei­ther be­cause you have swum out the side or the rip cur­rent has car­ried you to its end, make your way back to shore. Swim­ming di­ag­o­nally away from the rip cur­rent and in the di­rec­tion of any long-shore cur­rent will min­i­mize the chance that you will en­ter it again. You may be some dis­tance from shore at this point, so stop and float pe­ri­od­i­cally if you need to rest.

The P.E.I. Na­tional Park staff have pro­duced an ex­cel­lent in­struc­tional video called “Rip Cur­rents; the Hid­den Dan­ger,” which you should watch on YouTube.

Never ever swim alone.


Beth John­ston and her son, Char­lie Ross, are shown on the beach in Sav­age Har­bour where they had the fright of their lives Satur­day evening af­ter get­ting caught in a rip cur­rent.

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