Never swim alone
P.E.I.’s chief coroner offers tips to avoid and escape rip currents
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.