By Ron Hayes
In 1975, Steven Spielberg made a movie called Jaws, and we’ve all been terrified of shark attacks ever since.
John Fletemeyer wishes he’d made Rips instead.
By any measure, rip currents are far more deadly than sharks, and South Florida’s winter season brings together both the rough seas that help spawn them and the family and friends from up north who know the least about them.
“In reality, sharks account for only one or two serious incidents a year in Florida," says Fletemeyer, a research professor with the Laboratory for Coastal Research at Florida International University in Miami. “We estimate between 100 and 150 people drown in rip currents in the U.S. every year.”
Last year, for example, lifeguards at Delray Beach’s eight towers alone affected 59 ocean rescues, of which 53 were caused by rip currents.
“I’d estimate 90 to 95 percent of our rescues are rip current related,” says Bob Taylor, superintendent of the city’s Ocean Rescue division and a 29-year veteran. “Sharks are a nonissue.”
Fletemeyer and his colleague, professor Stephen Leatherman, will host the first International Rip Current Symposium at FIU Feb. 17-19 to discuss, in part, surveys they’ve conducted to measure the public’s knowledge of the danger.
“We found that tourists know a lot less about rip currents than locals,” he reports. “You get somebody from the Midwest down on vacation and they’re basically clueless.”
To begin with, rip currents are not riptide. And undertows don’t exist.
“A riptide is associated with a bay or inlet,” he notes. “It’s water coming in as a tidal current, then escaping, such as at Palm Beach Inlet. Rip currents really have nothing to do with tides. They’re more about the underwater topography.”
And rip currents aren’t undertows, either. They don’t pull you under, they pull you out.
A rip current forms because water naturally seeks the easiest way back to the sea. If a gap exists between two offshore sandbars, the outgoing tide from both north and south will flow toward that gap, creating a current that rushes seaward at 6 to 8 feet per second, strong enough to overwhelm even the most experienced swimmer.
The pull of a rip current is so strong, Fletemeyer warns, that even waders in waist-deep water can be caught, with the very young and very old especially vulnerable.
“We actually put an Olympic swimmer in a rip current in Palm Beach eight or nine years ago as a demonstration, and he couldn’t swim against it,” he recalls.
Two factors that increase the likelihood of rip current drownings are east winds, blowing toward the shore, and rough surf, most common during winter months. And while there are usually fewer swimmers in the water during February, they are also most likely to be tourists, increasing the danger.
They don’t know what a rip current is, and they don’t know what do if caught in one.
First, don’t panic. And then ignore your intuition.
When being pulled out to sea, the natural inclination is to swim toward shore. Do that with a rip current and you’re actually swimming against the oncoming current.
Instead, float on your back until the current takes you out and beyond its “neck” and starts to disperse. Then swim parallel to the shoreline, either north or south.
Best of all, though, is to avoid the danger as much as possible by always swimming near a lifeguard, where you have only a one-in-18-million chance of drowning, according to the Florida Beach Patrol Chiefs Association.
“Rip currents can happen anywhere,” says Taylor, “but a healthy dose of respect for the ocean will take you a long way.”