Ask a Firefighter: Learn to identify and survive a rip current

Ask a Firefighter: Learn to identify and survive a rip current


Taking a dip in the ocean is a great way to cool off, but it can also be dangerous, even for skilled swimmers. Misquamicut firefighters and Westerly Town Beach lifeguards recently rescued five people struggling in a rip current. Two of the victims had entered the strong surf to help three other swimmers in distress. Fortunately, all were rescued without injury.

Residents and visitors are asking firefighters about rip currents and how to react if caught in one. By understanding the danger of rip currents, learning how to identify them, and taking a few safety precautions before you go in the water, your day at the beach can be safe and enjoyable.

The United States Lifesaving Association estimates that rip currents are the cause of 100 deaths each year. Rip currents keep surf lifeguards busy because they account for over 80 percent of rescues. Contrary to popular belief, rip currents do not pull people under the water. Instead they pull people away from shore. Drowning deaths occur when people are unable to keep themselves afloat, whether because of fear, panic, exhaustion, lack of swimming skills, or a combination of those factors.

Locally, Town Lifeguard Captain Jeff Lenihan reports that Westerly Surf Rescue lifeguards, as of mid-August, had rescued and assisted more than 150 swimmers in distress this summer. He also notes that almost all of the rescues are due to strong rip currents which are prevalent along the Westerly coastline.

Rip currents are the leading surf hazard for all beachgoers, and they are particularly dangerous for weak swimmers or non-swimmers. Rip current speeds are typically 1 to 2 feet per second. However, speeds as high as 8 feet per second have been measured: This is faster than an Olympic swimmer!

When waves break on shore, the water has to go back out to sea. Rip currents can form from the outgoing flow of the previous incoming wave. When waves are larger and more powerful, the rip current becomes stronger. The rip current, like a river, flows perpendicular from the shoreline out to sea. It typically extends from the shoreline through the surf zone, and past the line of breaking waves.

The USLA suggests that the best safety precaution is to recognize the danger of rip currents and to swim only at beaches with lifeguards. The association has calculated the chance that a person will drown while attending a beach protected by USLA-affiliated lifeguards at 1 in 18 million. In 2015, lifeguards rescued 48,000 people from rip currents.

You can identify a rip current by looking for several clues. Look for a channel of churning, choppy water, or an area having a notable difference in water color. You may also see a line of foam, seaweed, or debris moving steadily seaward, or even a break in the incoming wave pattern. Rip currents can form on any beach and swimmers usually don’t know a rip current is present until they are in its clutches, and panicked victims often try to swim directly back to shore, against the powerful offshore flow.

It is important to know what to do if you or someone else gets caught in a rip current. How you respond could make the difference between life and death. If caught in a rip current, remain calm to conserve energy and think clearly. Since rip currents are like water treadmills, you will never be able to escape swimming against the current, so experts suggest that you don’t fight it. Swim out of the current in a direction following the shoreline and then swim towards shore. If at any time you are unable to swim out the rip current, float, or calmly tread water and draw attention to yourself by facing the shore, waving your arms, and calling for help.

If you see someone who is struggling in a rip current, get help from a lifeguard or call 911. Throw the distressed swimmer something that floats and yell instructions on how to escape. Do not go in the water to try to rescue the victim. Remember, many people drown while trying to save someone else from a rip current.

Jane Perkins is a fire safety specialist for the Rhode Island Southern Firefighters League and captain of the Watch Hill Fire Department. If you would like to see a question answered in this column, please e-mail her at

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