CLEVELAND — In conjunction with National Rip Current Awareness Week, being held this week from Sunday to Saturday, the 9th Coast Guard District is reminding swimmers of the dangers of rip currents as well as how to avoid them, what to do if caught in one, and how to assist someone else who is caught in one.
Despite the lack of tidal influences in the Great Lakes, rip currents are an ever-present threat to swimmers, anglers, and others recreating along shoreline areas.
“The Great Lakes form deadly rip currents just like the ocean,” said Cmdr. Nathan Podoll, director of Auxiliary and Recreational Boating Safety for the 9th District. “The best safety precautions to take for a memorable day on the water for beachgoers and anglers include checking the National Weather Service’s Surf Zone Forecast, swimming with a buddy, swimming only at beaches patrolled by lifeguards, and if you’re a weak or inexperienced swimmer, using an inherently buoyant life jacket.”
Lake Michigan has the highest number of current-related fatalities and rescues of all the Great Lakes, with 77 fatalities and at least 230 rescues since 2002 — 201 more incidents than all of the other lakes combined.
Knowing what a rip current is and how they form is the first step to staying safe out on the water, no matter which of the Great Lakes you may find yourself on. Rip currents are strong narrow currents moving away from shore. The strongest rip currents can attain speeds reaching 8 feet per second — faster than an Olympic swimmer can swim.
The following are tips for identifying, avoiding and escaping rip currents.
- Identify – Look for changes in water-color; water motion; incoming wave shape or breaking point compared to adjacent conditions; channels of churning or choppy water; lines of foam, seaweed or debris moving seaward
- Avoid – Check the latest National Weather Service forecast for local beach conditions before heading out; learn to swim; learn to swim in surf; never swim alone; swim near a lifeguard; look for posted signs and warning flags indicating hazards; check with lifeguards before swimming and obey their instructions; always assume rip currents are present; if in doubt, don’t go out
- Escape – Remain calm to conserve energy; don’t fight the current; swim across the current parallel to the shoreline; when out of the current, swim an angle away from the current and toward shore; if you can’t escape, try to float or tread water until the current subsides then swim to shore; if you can’t reach shore, face the shore, wave your arms and yell for help to draw attention
- Assist – Get help from a lifeguard or if one isn’t available, call 911; throw the victim something that floats – a life jacket, cooler, ball; yell instructions to escape; don’t become a victim trying to help someone else
More information — including real life rip current stories, rip current safety graphics and brochures, and an animation depicting how to escape a rip current — is available on the National Weather Services’ Rip Current Safety website.