RE: Getting Current, June 2009
It’s good to see Aquatics International run an article regarding rip currents, which
United States Lifesaving Association statistics attribute to over 80 percent of drowning deaths at U.S. surf beaches (and presumably those around the world).
The USLA has worked for many years to educate the public about rip
currents, most recently in an alliance with the National Oceanic and
Atmospheric Administration, National Weather Service and Sea Grant.
Unfortunately, while the article included some well-established
facts about rip currents, it also contained some inaccuracies,
misleading assertions and questionable advice that bear
The article asserts that “On days when there are strong
rip currents, high winds and large waves usually occur.”
While it appears evident that larger waves tend to produce stronger
rip currents, there is no consistent association with high winds.
In fact, high waves commonly arrive on Pacific beaches —
where most U.S. rip current rescues take place — on days of
light winds because they are typically produced by weather
conditions hundreds or thousands of miles away. Even in cases where
strong local winds produce high waves that strengthen rip currents,
these waves (and rips) can sometimes persist long after the winds
abate. Beachgoers should thus not assume that calm winds are
necessarily associated with safer ocean conditions, and lifeguards
should be trained accordingly.
The authors state that “Our survey is revealing another
important finding. About half the beachgoing public confuses rip
currents with rip tides and undertows.” This seems quite
plausible. One wonders however, how important it is? If you are
caught in a rip current, while thinking it to be a
“riptide” or “undertow,” and follow the
extrication advice that has been provided for a rip current, is it
critical that you named it correctly? Current public education
efforts aim to correct misnomers, but focus on what to do when in
According to the article, “In the majority of cases, rip
currents cannot be observed from the beach … It’s
usually not enough for lifeguards to visually look for rip currents
from the vantage point of their beach chairs or from standing at
the water’s edge. Instead, they must physically go into the
water on a regular basis and feel for rips.” This is
In 22 years as an ocean lifeguard, I cannot recall a single
rescue of a person from a rip current during daylight hours that I
effected or witnessed where I could not clearly identify the rip
current from shore. Undoubtedly, very weak rip currents are more
difficult to identify, but they are, by definition, relatively
benign. A lifeguard should not compromise the safety of swimmers in
the lifeguard’s care, leaving the lifeguard tower on a
“regular basis,” for what amounts to a snipe hunt.
The authors rightly point out that warning flags are sometimes
ineffective because they are not changed in a timely manner to
accurately reflect conditions and because people don’t always
know what the flags mean. I would add that the wrong flags are
sometimes flown when the job is assigned to people, other than
lifeguards, who are inexpert at judging ocean conditions. Despite
these facts, the authors go on to recommend that warning flags be
flown at beaches without lifeguards.
The USLA endorses the International Life Saving Federation’s global
warning flag standard, including the admonition that warning flags
should only be used on beaches where lifeguards are present.
Lifeguards can ensure the flags are flown at proper times, explain
their meaning to the uncertain, and rescue those in distress. The
presence of flags, absent lifeguards, may suggest the presence of
an aquatic emergency response system that does not exist, creating
a false sense of security that is detrimental to public safety,
even for those who understand the meaning of the flags. If the
flags are wrongly selected by the inexpert, as often happens, the
hazard is further magnified.
Finally, in a seeming implication that existing public education
programs are inaccurate, the authors state, “Most rip
currents do not conform to the characteristics portrayed in
warnings and that are presented in public education
programs.” In fact, as any experienced ocean lifeguard knows,
all rip currents have key similarities, which contribute to the
distress of swimmers, but take on myriad forms. Like clouds, no two
Providing successful public safety education necessitates a
focus on the basics. We cannot expect to turn the entire U.S.
population into oceanographers. We can educate them about the
fundamentals, providing tips we hope they will remember in a time
of peril that might help them save themselves or others, in absence
of a lifeguard. Thus, most rip current education material focused
on the general public is simplified by design.
The approach of the USLA, in partnership with the NOAA, NWS, and
Sea Grant has been to provide information on rip currents via
standardized brochures and signs, which are posted throughout the
United States, while offering more detailed information at our
Websites. An example is: www.usla.org/ripcurrents.
It might be interesting to study whether providing more
comprehensive information to the general public would enhance
safety, as the authors seem to suggest, or whether it would be
counterproductive. One thing that has been learned through CPR
training is that even after intensive, hands-on training, those
trained tend to forget all but the most basic information in a
surprisingly short period of time. Hence the need to keep it
simple, particularly in public education.