Beach season on the Gulf Coast — we flock to the shore to take in the sunshine, salt air, sights and sounds of crashing waves and seagulls, weather permitting. For your next beach outing, plan for safety. In the water, it’s pretty obvious when surf is rough or high. What’s not so obvious is rip currents. Rip currents are narrow channels of water within the surf that go from the beach out into deeper water. Moving outward, not downward, rip currents may be just a few yards wide. They can happen on any beach, worldwide, where there are breaking waves. That means places like the Great Lakes have rip currents, too. Rip currents often form around jetties and breaks in sandbars, creating channels of moving water, which are further increased by wind. On a single day, they can form, fade and migrate up and down a beach.
Just imagine, you are splashing in the surf, enjoying the day, and the next thing you notice is you are steadily being pulled outward by a current of water. The worst thing to do is to swim against the current because that quickly tires you and can lead to drowning. It might be a natural reaction, but when you stop and realize that rip currents are generally not very wide, then it will make sense to swim parallel to the beach, until the current eases up, and then swim back to shore.
Rip currents are confused with undertows, which are a gentle movement of deeper water away from the beach. Rip currents are also confused with rip tides, which are currents of water driven by rapid changes in tides, enhanced by openings in a river channel or an inlet.
Rip currents are deadly. According to data compiled by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), five lives were lost on Baldwin County beaches last year. That’s more than the number of people killed on the Alabama coast from lightning, tornadoes, flash floods and hurricanes combined. The majority of lives lost to rip currents are male. NOAA statistics show that in the last five years, 19 people were killed by rip currents in Mobile and Baldwin counties. Of those, 18 were male. That is 95 percent, an extraordinarily high percentage, with a clear message that we guys need to take fewer risks, and our loved ones need to encourage — or demand — we follow simple safety rules.
Make sure you understand what the beach flag colors mean. Check the rip current forecast before your beach outing. Swim near a lifeguard. Never go beyond your physical limit for the type of surf. Don’t get in rough water, especially if you’ve been drinking alcohol. Take time to study the water, especially from a higher vantage point, where you can sometimes see channels of water moving away from the coast as the waves come in. Make your beach outing a safe one.
Alan Sealls is chief meteorologist at NBC15 and an adjunct meteorology professor at the University of South Alabama.
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