Swimmers at Lake Michigan and Lake Superior beaches over the holiday weekend should know about possible rip currents and how to survive them, according to Wisconsin Sea Grant Water Safety specialist James Lubner.
“Rip currents are a significant concern for swimmers at Great Lakes
beaches,” Lubner said. “They can occur in many places, when waves push water up on beaches. That water then flows back toward the lake, sometimes forming a strong current.”
According to the United States Lifesaving Association, rip currents in the Great Lakes and oceans kill more than 100 people every year – more than tornadoes or lightning. And they account for more than 80 percent of lifeguard rescues.
Escaping from the strong currents is possible if one knows how, Lubner said.
“The key is to swim parallel to shore until you are out of the current,then swim at an angle towards shore” he said. “The currents are relatively narrow streams of water moving straight away from shore. So swimming parallel to shore will get you out of the current quickly. Then you can swim towards shore.”
Not even the strongest swimmers can successfully swim directly against the current, Lubner said.
“The important thing is not to panic,” he added. “Rip currents are
definitely survivable if you swim parallel to shore. And there are no so-called undertows associated with rip currents.”
Identifying rip currents from shore can be difficult because the signs are subtle, Lubner said. They include areas of churning, choppy, or differently colored water. Other signals can be foam, seaweed, and debris moving away from shore. Sometimes, rip currents can produce deceptively calm channels of water between breaking waves, Lubner noted.
Lubner also cautioned swimmers and boaters to remember that the cold
waters of the Great Lakes can sap a person’s energy quickly.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) offers these safety tips at http://www.ripcurrents.noaa.gov:
Learn how to swim!
When at the beach:
* Whenever possible, swim at a lifeguard-protected beach.
* Never swim alone.
* Learn how to swim in the surf. It’s not the same as swimming in a pool or lake.
* Be cautious at all times, especially when swimming at unguarded beaches. If in doubt, don’t go out.
* Obey all instructions and orders from lifeguards. Lifeguards are trained to identify potential hazards. Ask a lifeguard about the
conditions before entering the water. This is part of their job.
* Stay at least 100 feet away from piers and jetties. Permanent
rip currents often exist along side these structures.
* Consider using polarized sunglasses when at the beach. They will help you to spot signatures of rip currents by cutting down glare and reflected sunlight off the ocean’s surface.
* Pay especially close attention to children and elderly when at the beach. Even in shallow water, wave action can cause loss of footing.
If caught in a rip current:
* Remain calm to conserve energy and think clearly.
* Never fight against the current.
* Think of it like a treadmill that cannot be turned off, which
you need to step to the side of.
* Swim out of the current in a direction following the shoreline.
When out of the current, swim at an angle–away from the
* If you are unable to swim out of the rip current, float or
calmly tread water. When out of the current, swim towards shore.
* If you are still unable to reach shore, draw attention to
yourself by waving your arm and yelling for help.
If you see someone in trouble, don’t become a victim too:
* Get help from a lifeguard.
* If a lifeguard is not available, have someone call 9-1-1.
* Throw the rip current victim something that floats–a
lifejacket, a cooler, an inflatable ball.
* Yell instructions on how to escape.
* Remember, many people drown while trying to save someone else
from a rip current.
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