Riptide: The Danger and How to Survive

Riptide or Rip Current or even undertow; however you use the term, it can be deadly. It doesn’t have to be that way for swimmers. But, it often is. Three people drowned from being caught in riptide over the Memorial Day weekend at nearby beaches on the gulf coast. It is usually out of town people, people who most likely are not accustomed to the dangers our beautiful beaches present.

When you go to the sandy white beaches along the gulf coast, on a really beautiful weekend, you think nothing in the world can go wrong. That has been the undoing of many people. Riptide can occur anywhere waves are breaking on shore. The bigger the wave, the stronger the riptide. The riptide itself is a narrow band of water accelerating back out to sea. It can move up to two feet a second and can extend from 200 feet to 2000 feet off shore.

What happens is that people find themselves moving out to sea and panic. Panicking is a natural reaction and one I am quite familiar with myself (more on that later). The strongest natural instinct is to survive. It is natural to try and swim back to shore. To do that would guarantee you to exhaust yourself and drown if someone doesn’t come to your rescue. The current is overwhelmingly powerful and frightening to people. It is hard to suppress the fear of being swept out to sea. But, there is a way to survive riptides.

When you are caught up in a riptide, you will know it. You will not feel your feet touching the ground (if you were wading out) and you will be moving out to sea…quickly. What you must do is swim PARALLEL to shore. This is the toughest thing to do because you don’t feel like you are accomplishing anything. But, you are getting yourself out of danger. The riptide itself is usually only 10-15 feet wide in most cases. You should be able to swim out of that on your back. If you get tired, turn and float on your back. Most people are easily able to float on their back for reasons that should be obvious.

I was caught in a riptide one day before I left for Navy basic training in Orlando, FL in May of 1970. We all decided to have one last fling at the beach. I started swimming toward a large outcropping of rocks and felt myself moving faster than I knew I was swimming. I was caught in a riptide. Now, something I need to say right here…the previous week I had read in the newspaper how to get out of a riptide. I forgot that for a few seconds as I attempted to swim toward shore. I quickly got exhausted and I was too far away for people to realize I was in trouble. I remembered what I read in the newspaper about swimming parallel to shore to get out of the riptide. After laying on my back (and still drifting out to sea) to regain my composure, I started swimming parallel to shore. I had to overcome several times the panic that was almost paralyzing me. But, after about one or two minutes, I felt myself out of the riptide (we call it undertow along the gulf coast). I was then able to swim leisurely back to shore. I was shaken, unable to stand up and could barely talk to tell what had happened. But, I was alive. All because of one newspaper article I took the time to read one week previously.

I hope this blog entry can save one person. If it does, then I can say I accomplished something with this blog. It is a shame the three people who drowned this weekend did not take the time to read the warning signs posted at the beach. Or perhaps they thought they were strong swimmers who could overcome a riptide. There is not a swimmer in the world who can overcome a riptide by swimming to shore. I promise you that. Remember, if you are caught in a riptide; 1. Do your best not to panic. 2. Do NOT try to swim to shore. 3. If you are being overcome with panic, lay on your back and relax. You can do this. 4. Most importantly, swim PARALLEL to shore. You can survive a riptide if you remember this one last rule. It saved my life. It could have saved those three swimmers who drowned this past weekend.


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