October 9, 2012
Contact: Ken or Kate Gooderham, ASBPA executive directors -- (239) 489-2616
Harry Simmons, ASBPA president -- (910) 200-7867
A closer look at rip currents
Simpler terms can make rip currents more understandable – and survivable.
In the most recent issue of “Shore & Beach,” the quarterly technical journal on coastal issues published by the American Shore & Beach Preservation Association, Dr. Stephen P. Leatherman addresses the dangers and characteristic of rip currents – powerful currents of water that flow offshore from many beaches under certain conditions which are responsible for more than 100 deaths annually in this country.
Leatherman puts forth a description of the five main types of rip currents, using terminology that should resonate with average beachgoers while giving them a better grasp of what to look for in the offshore waters both to avoid rips and to understand better the ways by which these currents can be more safely negotiated should you get caught in one of them.
The five rip current types and a brief description of their qualities are:
Leatherman’s goal in this descriptive detail is to make rip currents more recognizable to the average beachgoer, both to make them more avoidable and to better grasp how to survive if you’re caught in one by seeing their predictable nature. (That’s why surfers often use rips to take them offshore for the next incoming wave.) The key here is to stay calm and either swim across the current (usually meaning parallel to the shoreline) or to wait until the current weakens and you can escape its grasp to swim back to shore.
- Bar-gap: The most common and, thus, the most dangerous to the general public. As the name suggests, these form due to a break on the offshore sand bar that allows a channel of water to flow seaward. Easy to spot by the calm, dark water in the midst of breaking offshore waves, these rips can last as long as the broken bar stays in place.
- Cusped-shore: Common along bow-shaped coastlines where the shape of the offshore bars and the hydrology that results encourages these currents. Frequently found in the Florida Panhandle, these deceptive currents can look calmer than the surrounding waters along the shoreline.
- Structurally controlled: These result from either offshore rock formations (along a rocky coastline) or manmade structures that create an offshore-bound current. The permanent nature of the cause makes the effect similarly consistent, but steering clear or heeding the advice of local experts make these easy to avoid.
- Flash: Very temporary and very variable, these currents come during strong onshore winds and waves that can combine to create hazardous conditions. Usually weaker than other rips, but still dangerous because of their unpredictability.
- Mega-rip: Very powerful and very dangerous, these current come from high surf in conjunction with underwater rock formations that channelize the rebounding wave energy. Notably for their size, often extending twice the distance of the surf zone.
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