Until the other day I was unaware of Rip Current Awareness Week, which this year was June 3-9. It’s an annual effort at the start of summer vacation season to alert swimmers and boaters to the dangerous water patterns that occur in large bodies of water where there are breaking waves, mainly along the ocean but also on some Great Lakes coasts.
I’d heard of rip currents but learned more about them from Michigan Sea Grant, which is a program of Michigan State University and the University of Michigan dedicated to education, research and other programs concerning the use and conservation of the Great lakes.
Rip currents and channel currents are the natural formations of 10- to 20-foot wide channels of powerful and rapidly moving waters that can overpower and pull swimmers away from shore.
Rip currents flow perpendicular from shore outward at 2 mph to up to 5 mph, faster than even an Olympian can swim. Channel currents flow parallel to the shoreline.
The dangerous currents don’t drag swimmers under water; most problems are a result of people panicking when currents take them away from shore and they try to fight or swim against the force. About 80 percent of the 60,000 rescues lifeguards make each year involve rip or channel currents. It’s best to swim where there’s a lifeguard on duty, but on most Michigan beaches that isn’t an option.
Break the Grip of the Rip
Swimmers caught in a rip current should try to follow these tips to Break the Grip of the Rip:
- Figure out which way the current is flowing.
- Flip over onto your back.
- Float to keep your head above water and conserve energy.
- Follow the current until it weakens. Rip currents dissipate quickly as they move away from the shore into deeper water. Ride it out and swim perpendicular to the current.
Helping someone else
Many people have died while trying to rescue others caught in currents. Don’t become a victim yourself.
- If a lifeguard is not present, shout directions on how to escape the current.
- Throw something that floats, like a life jacket, boogie board or cooler to the person in danger.
- Call 911.
- When rescuing others, bring something that floats with you.
Rip currents often develop around piers and breakwalls on windy days, but also on open water and even when the weather is calm. The highest incidents in Michigan are known to occur in two areas:
- Upper Peninsula: On the northern Lake Michigan shore where there are miles of sandy beaches along highway US-2
- Lower Peninsula: Southern and mid-Lake Michigan from the Indiana border to Traverse City
Some communities display warning flags on the beach and make radio announcements when conditions favor rip or channel currents. Heed the warnings, and don’t swim alone.
For more information and tips about rip currents see the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration website