How to Escape a Rip Current -- Advice from an Expert
Each year across the U.S., lifeguards rescue some 50,000 swimmers from rip currents; more than 100 victims don’t make it. In 1965 Dave Berman was a fresh-faced 21-year-old lifeguard when he got sucked into his first rip.”It was the end of the day, and a bunch of us went body surfing,” he remembers. The surf was huge, and as Berman swam out for a final run, he put his foot down and couldn’t touch bottom. Worse, he could see himself moving farther and farther from shore. He didn’t panic, and he managed to escape the rip’s clutches, but it left an impression. “It was eye-opening,” says Berman, who’s 68 and now working his 50th season as an ocean lifeguard. “I’ve used that experience to tell people how frightening it can be and how to avoid it.”
Before you enter the water, ask the lifeguard what, if any, safety issues are in play. What’s the longshore drift like? Is there actually a rip current? “I’ve rescued people whom I’ve watched swim,” Berman says. “They don’t hear my whistle, and the next thing you know, they’re in the middle of a rip current, and you have to go and get them.”
Berman says there are a few telltale signs that indicate that a rip current exists. “A lot of times when there’s a rip, it’s pulling sand out to sea, so it looks murkier,” he says. Take notice of the waves, too, he advises: “You’ll see smaller, calmer waves in front of the sandbar; larger, choppier waves in the rip current.”
Yes, Berman admits that’s an easy thing to say when you’re not actually in a rip current, but it’s vital. “Once fear takes over, you lose a lot of your strength,” he says.
Swim Parallel to Shore
If you do actually get caught in a rip, know this: Instead of trying to swim back to shore, swim parallel to it. You may in fact still be pulled out to sea a bit, but if you keep your wits about you and just continue to swim, you’ll emerge from the danger. “Most rip currents are only 30 feet wide,” Berman explains, “so you don’t have to swim all that far.”
Take a Breather
It may sound obvious, but Berman says that after getting out of a rip current and returning to shore, you should take some time before you go back into the water. Back when he was 21 and he got caught in his first rip, that’s what he did. “All of us just decided to relax at that point,” he says.