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17 Apr 2021
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Island Insider Tips

In that last blog, I covered some basic beach rules from the Isle of Palms. These guidelines help enhance your visit to the beach, making sure everyone has a good time. 

Well, this time I’m sharing some advice that just might save a life. 

There’s a danger lurking in the water along the beach. It can appear at any time, in any ocean, anywhere in the world. It leads to many people losing their lives each year, including some dear friends of mine.  And no, it’s not sharks.

What is it?  Rip currents. 

Coastal meteorologists and Lowcountry teachers are pretty good at educating locals about the dangers of rip currents.  But if you are coming to the coast from another part of the country, you may not be familiar with rip currents and what to do if you encounter them.

Just what are rip currents, anyway?

To understand what rip currents are, it helps to understand what they aren’t.  Rip currents are NOT rip tides or undertow, where you are pulled under the water.  That’s something completely different.

 A rip current is a channel, a sort of “mini-river” of water that rushes from the shore back out into the ocean.  The water in the channel runs very fast.  It’s often much faster than even the strongest swimmer can manage to swim against.  So instead of getting pulled under the water (like an undertow), you are carried out to sea. 

The most common reaction is to panic and try to swim straight back to shore (against the current).  But that often leads to disaster. 

Rip currents are caused by an extra amount of water coming onshore.  It might be from high winds, big waves, or a stretch of rainy weather.  All that extra water has to go back into the ocean somehow, and it does so via rip currents. 

The ironic thing is they often appear from the surface as a calm section of ocean between sets of waves, thus attracting unsuspecting swimmers.  They can happen on a perfectly sunny day.  They are most common where the ocean floor and sand are uneven, like around piers and jetties.  But really, they can happen anywhere.

So to recap  -  rip currents are channels of water that flow out into the ocean. They can be very strong and move very fast – up to 8 miles an hour.  Rip currents pull people away from shore, but they will not pull a person under.  It’s important to note that they can be very narrow, or they can be over 100 yards wide. 

How to stay safe around rip currents? 

The answer is counter-intuitive.                                                                    

Even though the water is pulling you out to sea, DO NOT try to swim straight back to shore.  Instead, swim PARALLEL to the shore, in either direction, until you are out of the rip current.  Then and only then try to swim back toward land.  Above all, don’t panic.  Stay calm, swim parallel, then back in, and you’ll be fine.

Keep an eye peeled for warnings 

Another great help is warnings or warning flags about dangerous conditions.  When you enter the Isle of Palms, check the big city sign that is posted at the main intersection in town, right off the Connector.  The City of IOP posts red letter warnings there if rip currents are happening. 

Lifeguards are trained to deal with rip currents and often have to rescue people from them.  In fact, Isle of Palms County Park officials estimate that rip currents are the cause of 80% of surf rescues here on the island.

Assistant park manager Cole Thomas had this to say: "People panic when they start to get pulled out.  What we're trying to teach people to do is turn and swim parallel to the shore so you'll swim out of the rip current, and you'll eventually stop feeling it pull."

How Can You Spot a Rip Current? 

• Look for choppy, churning water. 

• Notice if there’s a section of water looks like it’s a different color. 

• Watch for seaweed or foam that is moving fast out to sea. 

• Look for a break in the wave pattern along the shore.

What To Do If You’re Caught in a Rip Current? 

• Do NOT panic.  Stay as calm as you can.

• Do NOT try to swim against the current straight back to shore.

• Instead, swim along the shoreline in either direction to get out of the rip current. 

• Once you no longer feel the pull of the current, then swim back to the shore diagonally, away from the rip.

• If you are in trouble, wave or call for help.  In the meantime, float or tread water.

Rip currents can be scary, indeed.  They can take down even the strongest swimmers.  They can also lead to multiple fatalities as other well-meaning but uninformed people rush in to help.

But once you are armed with the knowledge of what they are and how to deal with them,you should be just fine.  Education really is the key with this powerful phenomenon of nature.

So help spread the word about rip currents, and you may save a life or two or three.  And if you or a loved one get caught in one, now you’ll know just what to do. 

All best,
Lowcountry Lisa
your Isle of Palms vacation blogger