What Is A ‘Rip Current’ and How Can You Escape One?

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Tourists line the beach in Ocean City, Maryland. (Credit: JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images)

Tourists line the beach in Ocean City, Maryland. (Credit: JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images)

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LANHAM, Md. (WNEW) — Already this summer, three teenagers have died after getting caught in a rip current while swimming in Ocean City, Maryland.

Ocean City Beach Patrol Captain Butch Arbin says rip currents are the cause of about 95 percent of the patrol’s rescues during any given summer. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) calls them the number one safety threat at beaches.

Rip currents are created when waves affect the ocean floor near the coast — think about seeing a sandbar form several hundred feet off the beach. When water gets trapped between the sandbar and the shore, it eventually finds a place where it can break through and flow back into the open ocean, creating a rip current, Arbin says.

The most dangerous part of the currents is that they can move faster than even the most advanced swimmers. However, when people are trapped in them and feel the sensation of being pulled out to sea, most try to swim straight back to shore. This, Arbin says, “is like being on a treadmill.” No matter how fast you swim, you don’t really go anywhere.

That’s why Arbin and the NOAA both say the first step in dealing with rip currents is avoiding them altogether.

According to NOAA, tell-tale signs include a channel of churning, choppy water, an area with a noticeable difference in color, a line of foam, seaweed, or debris moving steadily out to sea, or a break in the incoming wave pattern.

Arbin suggests asking the nearest lifeguard if the water is safe. He also advises against swimming when lifeguards are not on duty.

According to Arbin, drownings are much less common in Ocean City since the town started an aggressive campaign to warn people about the dangers of swimming without lifeguards present. Until earlier this week, it had been five years since a drowning happened while a lifeguard was on duty, he says.

If you ever do find yourself caught in a rip current, remember what the letters of “rip” stand for:

R — “Relax.” Stay calm and don’t fight against the current. If you have a flotation device, don’t abandon it. It could help you stay afloat.
I — “I need help!” Signal to people on land that you’re in distress.
P — “Parallel.” Swim parallel to the shore to try to escape the rip current’s pull. They usually aren’t very wide, Arbin says.

The NOAA also has a video on how to avoid or escape a rip current. You can watch it below.

(© Copyright 2014 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

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