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How to avoid the potentially deadly grip of a rip current

By Michael Kuhne, AccuWeather staff writer

With millions of beachgoers flocking to U.S. shorelines every year, the greatest danger most will face is not lurking beneath the waves, but the water itself.

Rip currents, fast-moving, narrow flows of water that push away from the shoreline, claim more than 100 lives in the U.S. annually and account for nearly 80 percent of all lifeguard rescues, according to the United States Lifesaving Association.

"Rip currents are caused by large swells that propagate toward coastal areas," AccuWeather senior meteorologist Dan Kottlowski said.

They can occur at any time of year, and swimmers should be aware of the dangers.


Rip current in Florida after Hurricane Jeanne. (National Weather Service in Melbourne, Florida, photo/Dennis Decker, WCM)

Chaotic swells are stirred by powerful storms, high winds and strong circulation, which increase the volume of water in coastal areas, Kottlowski added.

"Every area is different," he said, referring to natural protecting barriers that mitigate rip currents in some places. Other areas may see the full force of a nearby storm.

Swimmers should, however, remain cautious at all times because rip currents can also form on calm, sunny days.

While powerful rip currents are often triggered by storms and high winds, additional topographical influences such as holes, rocks and piers also generate rip currents. They can occur in any large body of water, including the Great Lakes.

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The first method of protection against rip currents is to always swim with a lifeguard present, NOAA said. According to the United States Lifesaving Association the risk of death while swimming with a lifeguard present is 1 in 18 million.

If trapped in the grip of a powerful rip current, it is imperative to not give in to panic, Kottlowski said.

Rip currents -- how they form

Kottlowski said sheer volume and speed of a rip current will exhaust even the best swimmers.

If caught in a rip current, it is best to swim parallel to shore until free of its influence.

"You cannot fight that volume of water going out," Kottlowski said. "It's impossible. People who get caught, panic, but it is best to stay calm and let the water calm down and you'll be fine."

After you swim parallel to the coast for about 50 to 100 yards, begin swimming on an angle, away from the rip current and toward the shore.

If swimming parallel does not work, The United States Lifesaving Association recommends calmly treading water and waiting out the current until it's possible to swim safely back to shore.

If it's impossible to reach the shoreline, the USLA recommends drawing as much attention as possible to alert a lifeguard or onlooker who can get assistance.

Kottlowski also stressed the importance of being aware of potential dangers by checking NOAA forecasts for any warnings and alerts as well as with local officials before venturing into the surf.

"You should never go in by yourself," he said. "Each beach is different."

For more safety and preparedness tips, visit

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