HOUSTON - If you're heading down to the beach and you can't swim two laps in an Olympic-sized pool without taking a break, and you can't tread water for at least 20 minutes, and you're not okay swimming in the ocean over your head in water where you can't see the bottom, don't swim. It'll be best to wade only up to your knees. Our rip current risk remains high through at least tomorrow. This, "undertow" current, as some call it because it can sweep you off your feet, is the product of two large-scale, meteorological forces. They've made our shores, ripe for rips.
- Hurricane Hermine has departed, but its energy continues to be felt here in the form of ocean swells which push water high up onto the beaches, past the sandbar.
A large area of high pressure over the southeast is creating a persistent fetch of winds onshore, which is enhancing the effect of pushing water onto the beach.
Rip currents form when water pushed past the sandbar rushes back into the Gulf when the sandbars erode and break. Sandbars break when there's too much, "outgoing" pressure on them, causing micro fractures which can quickly become wide-open channels. It's a similar process to the breaking of an earthen dam from flood waters. This creates an instant and sometimes violent rush of water, ripping back out to sea. You actually see this from above, as sand on the bottom is kicked up.
They can certainly catch you by surprise when they first form, but if you know how to spot a, "river" inside of the sea, you can avoid them entirely. From the perspective of the beach, when trying to spot rips look for spots where waves are not breaking. This could signify out-going water. Also try and look for foam or froth that's been carried straight out from the break waters. This would also indicate water being pulled back out to sea at a high rate.
If you're caught in one, here are a few things you need to know.
- If you try to swim against a rip current, you will likely drown. Not even Olympian Michael Phelps could beat a rip current. The water rushes out as fast as 8 feet per second. Phelps can do about 7 feet per second. He'd be swept out to sea. Fatigued from fighting it, most sink below the surface and die.
- If you're caught by one, there are two things you can do.
- Tread water while yelling for help. That'll get the attention of the life guard. Once you the current lets up (about 600 feet from the beach in some cases) don't panic, and make your way to the beach.
- While being pulled out, gently swim perpendicular to rip current (horizontal to the beach) to swim outside of the narrow channel of water. Once you escape, you can slowly and calmly make your way back to shore. Crashing waves can assist in pushing you back to the beach in both cases.
On a personal note, I lost two relatives to rip currents at the same time, when they were vacationing in Aruba years ago. They were both experienced watermen but a combination of dangerous waves and local beach features was too much for even them. Always swim on guarded beaches.
Surfers use rip currents to take, "free ride" pass the break, but for swimmers -- especially inexperienced swimmers -- rip currents might as well be called, "rest in peace" currents.