Anatomy of rip currents, tips to stay safe

By: Jeff Blevins Email
By: Jeff Blevins Email

It's been a record year for water rescues on Lake Michigan, with rip currents playing a big role.

Sunny skies and Lake Michigan, it’s usually a great combo for a weekend getaway. A sunny day at the beach can turn deadly when rip currents form.

Rip currents are strong currents that flow away from the shoreline, and can easily pull even the strongest swimmers away from the beach.

As waves break on the sand bar near the shoreline, they cause an increase in the water level over the bars compared to the channel between the sand bar and the beach.

This causes a pressure gradient, which creates a current along the shoreline, called a feeder current. These feeder currents converge and then move away from the shore, usually through low areas or breaks in the sand bar.

Many people panic, or try to fight the current by swimming back towards the shoreline, which can cause fatigue very quickly. Instead, the best way to get out of a rip current is to swim parallel to the shore until you are out of the current.

If you are unable to swim away from the current, try to just float, or calmly tread water until you are out of current's pull.

There are a few signs you can watch for to identify a rip current:

  • A channel of choppy, churning water

  • An area with a noticeable difference in water color

  • A break in the incoming wave pattern

  • A line of foam, seaweed, or debris moving steadily away from shore

Of course, the best way to stay out of a rip current is to stay out of the water when the warning flags are posted.

In the past 10 years there have been more deaths in Michiana due to rip currents than from tornadoes, strong winds, and flooding combined.

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