What’s more dangerous than sharks? Return currents, powerful and difficult to identify, channeled currents of water that rush offshore. They can pull swimmers offshore and turn a carefree swim into a grueling fight for survival.
“Almost any day at the beach there could be a rip current,” said Gordon Miller, Northern District lifeguard supervisor at Cape Cod National Seashore. “They didn’t disappear when the sharks appeared.”
According to the United States Lifesaving Association (USLA), rip currents “are the #1 hazard on a surf beach, resulting in tens of thousands of rescues by lifeguards and more than 100 drowning deaths each year in the United States. “.
In contrast, there were 11 shark-related deaths worldwide in 2021, according to the Florida Museum of Natural History at the University of Florida.
Rip currents can develop on any beach with breaking waves. On Cape Cod, these surf beaches include those facing the open Atlantic Ocean in Truro, Wellfleet, and Eastham. Cape Cod National Seashore beaches in the mix include Head of the Meadow Beach in Truro, Marconi Beach in Wellfleet, and Nauset Light and Coast Guard Beaches in Eastham.
Miller estimated that there are about 30 rip current rescues per season at each of Seashore’s four surf beaches. But he said he was unaware of a rip current drowning at a Seashore beach in the 37 years he’s been on the job, or in the park’s 60-year history.
In 2021, however, a swimmer died after being caught in a rip current in the ocean off Great Pond on Martha’s Vineyard. And there have been close calls in the area, one of which is documented in the new film “Rip Current Rescue,” which is set to debut on Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) stations this summer and also available on streaming platforms.
A segment of the documentary shows what happened in July 2015, when Derrick Johns and his two daughters were swimming at Surfside Beach in Nantucket. One of her daughters had a GoPro camera on a stick, and the footage shows how quickly things went from careless play to life-threatening when a rip current gripped them.
Derrick Johns used a GoPro key to help his daughter in a rip current
Johns was able to use the GoPro stick to pull her daughter into shallower water, but lost her footing and was swept out to sea by the current. He made the mistake of trying to swim against the swell and quickly got exhausted.
“I was like, it’s going to be fine for them, but I had nothing left. I had 30 seconds left, and the guy came right up to me and dragged me in. I was just basically frozen,” Johns told the Cape Cod Times in 2015.
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In the documentary, Johns sums up his battle against a rip current this way: “I’m a former Marine, I was in the Gulf War and I don’t think I can say I’ve ever been so scared out there. “Swimming in the current is Mother Nature. There’s nothing stronger than that I’ve ever felt.”
Drowning caused by rip currents can occur “when people pulled offshore are unable to keep afloat and swim to shore. This can be due to any combination of fear, panic, exhaustion or lack of swimming skills,” according to a fact sheet published by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the USLA.
But there are ways to improve the odds of having serious problems with rip currents and, most importantly, to avoid drowning deaths. Miller urges visitors to Seashore beaches to watch for signs at beach entrances that provide daily updates on water and air temperatures and surf conditions. It’s also a good idea to discuss with the lifeguards any dangers that may be involved when swimming.
Here is some key information from a USLA/NOAA fact sheet on rip currents:
Q What can people do if they are caught in a rip current?
If you are caught in a rip current: try to stay calm to conserve your energy. Don’t fight the current. Think of it like a treadmill that you can’t turn off. You want to stand aside. Swim through the current in a direction following the shore. When you are out of the current, swim up and away from the current and towards the shore.
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If you can’t escape it, try floating or walking calmly on water. The strength of the rip current eventually decreases offshore. When it does, swim to shore. If at any time you feel that you will not be able to reach the shore, call attention to yourself: face the shore, wave your arms and call for help.
Q How can people help others who are caught in a rip current?
If you see someone in trouble, seek help from a lifeguard. If no lifeguard is available, have someone call 911. Toss the rip current victim something that floats – a life jacket, cooler, ball. Shout instructions on how to escape.
Many have died trying to help others. Don’t become a victim by trying to help someone else! Before heading to the beach, check the latest National Weather Service forecast for local beach conditions. Many offices issue a surf area forecast. When you get to the beach, ask the lifeguards on duty about rip currents and any other dangers that may be present.
Q How to identify a rip current?
Signs of rip current are very subtle and difficult for the average swimmer to identify. Look for differences in water color, water movement, shape of incoming waves, or breakout point from adjacent conditions. Look for one of these clues: Channel of choppy, choppy water. Area with a noticeable difference in water color. Line of scum, seaweed or debris moving steadily out to sea. Pause in incoming wave pattern. One, all or none of the clues may be visible.
Q What is a rip current?
Rip currents are channeled water currents that flow away from shore at surf beaches. They generally extend close to shore, across the surf zone and beyond the line of the breaking waves (the surf zone is the area between the high tide level on the beach and the seaward side of the breaking waves ).
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Q How are rip currents formed?
Rip currents form when waves break close to shore, pooling water between the breaking waves and the beach. One of the ways this water returns to the sea is to form a rip current, a narrow current of water moving rapidly away from the shore, often perpendicular to the shore.
Q How big are the rip currents?
Rip currents can be as narrow as 10 or 20 feet wide although they can be up to ten times as wide. The length of the rip current also varies. The rip currents begin to slow as they move offshore past the breaking waves, but sometimes extend hundreds of feet beyond the surf zone.
Q Are all rip currents dangerous?
Rip currents are present on many beaches every day of the year, but they are generally too slow to be dangerous for bathers. However, under certain conditions of waves, tides and beach shape, they can reach dangerous speeds. The strength and speed of a rip current will likely increase as wave height and period increase.