Setting the Record Straight on Rip Currents

Editor's note: This is a letter to the editor from B. Chris Brewster, president of United States Lifesaving Association, in response to an column about rip currents in the June 2009 issue of Aquatics International.

It’s good to see Aquatics International run an article regarding rip currents ("Getting Current," June 2009), which United States Lifesaving Association statistics attribute to over 80% of drowning deaths at US surf beaches (and presumably those around the world). The USLA has worked for many years to educate the public about rip currents, most recently in an alliance with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, National Weather Service, and Sea Grant. Unfortunately, while the article included some well established facts about rip currents, it also contained some inaccuracies, misleading assertions, and questionable advice that bear attention.

The article asserts that, “On days when there are strong rip currents, high winds and large waves usually occur.” While it appears evident that larger waves tend to produce stronger rip currents, there is no consistent association with high winds. In fact, high waves commonly arrive on Pacific beaches, where most US rip current rescues take place, on days of light winds, since they are typically produced by weather conditions hundreds or thousands of miles away. Even in cases that strong local winds produce high waves that strengthen rip currents, these waves (and rips) can sometimes persist long after the winds abate. Beachgoers should thus not assume that calm winds are necessarily associated with safer ocean conditions and lifeguards should be trained accordingly.

The authors state that, “Our survey is revealing another important finding. About half the beachgoing public confuses rip currents with rip tides and undertows.” This seems quite plausible. One wonders however, how important it is? If you are caught in a rip current, while thinking it to be a “riptide” or “undertow,” and follow the extrication advice that has been provided for a rip current, is it critical that you named it correctly? Current public education efforts aim to correct misnomers, but focus on what to do when in distress.

According to the article, “In the majority of cases, rip currents cannot be observed from the beach … It’s usually not enough for lifeguards to visually look for rip currents from the vantage point of their beach chairs or from standing at the water’s edge. Instead, they must physically go into the water on a regular basis and “feel” for rips.” This is absurd.

In 22 years as an ocean lifeguard, I cannot recall a single rescue of a person from a rip current during daylight hours that I effected or witnessed where I could not clearly identify the rip current from shore. Undoubtedly, very weak rip currents are more difficult to identify, but they are, by definition, relatively benign. A lifeguard should not compromise the safety of swimmers in the lifeguard’s care, leaving the lifeguard tower on a “regular basis,” for what amounts to a snipe hunt.

The authors rightly point out that warning flags are sometimes ineffective because they are not changed in a timely manner to accurately reflect conditions and because people don’t always know what the flags mean. I would add that the wrong flags are sometimes flown when the job is assigned to people, other than lifeguards, who are inexpert at judging ocean conditions. Despite these facts, the authors go on to recommend that warning flags be flown at beaches without lifeguards.

The USLA endorses the International Life Saving Federation’s global warning flag standard, including the admonition that warning flags should only be used on beaches where lifeguards are present. Lifeguards can ensure the flags are flown at proper times, explain their meaning to the uncertain, and rescue those in distress. The presence of flags, absent lifeguards, may suggest the presence of an aquatic emergency response system that does not exist, creating a false sense of security that is detrimental to public safety, even for those who understand the meaning of the flags. If the flags are wrongly selected by the inexpert, as often happens, the hazard is further magnified.

Finally, in a seeming implication that existing public education programs are inaccurate, the authors state, “Most rip currents do not conform to the characteristics portrayed in warnings and that are presented in public education programs.” In fact, as any experienced ocean lifeguard knows, all rip currents have key similarities, which contribute to the distress of swimmers, but take on myriad forms. Like clouds, no two are identical.

Providing successful public safety education necessitates a focus on the basics. We cannot expect to turn the entire US population into oceanographers. We can educate them about the fundamentals, providing tips we hope they will remember in a time of peril that might help them save themselves or others, in absence of a lifeguard. Thus, most rip current education material focused on the general public is simplified by design.

The approach of the USLA, in partnership with the NOAA, NWS, and Sea Grant has been to provide information on rip currents via standardized brochures and signs, which are posted throughout the US, while offering more detailed information at our websites. An example is:

It might be interesting to study whether providing more comprehensive information to the general public would enhance safety, as the authors seem to suggest, or whether it would be counterproductive. One thing that has been learned through CPR training is that even after intensive, hands-on training, those trained tend to forget all but the most basic information in a surprisingly short period of time. Hence the need to keep it simple, particularly in public education.


B. Chris Brewster

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Comment by Jim Wheeler on March 5, 2011 at 5:24pm

Bravo Chris, CPR is complex and complex skills deteriorate no matter what the training approach or how mauch training is given. As I understand rip currents are a function of beach terrain, low spots and water uilding up on the beach, wave interval and size, more that wind for sure. Public outreach only works and matters if the public is forced to exposure of the educational materials  and to the insight and if they know they need to care. Thanks for sharing your experience and insight.

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