Rip Currents: Danger at the Beach

WebMD Live Events Transcript

Headed to the beach this summer? Did you know that according to the U.S. Lifesaving Association, rip currents along the beach claim more lives than hurricanes, tornadoes, lightening, flooding, and any other type of weather-related death except for heat? Before you take the plunge, find out what your family should do to stay safe when water safety advocate, WebMD's Sandee LaMotte, and B. Chris Brewster, president of the U.S. Lifesaving Association, joined us to answer your questions on May 26.

The opinions expressed herein are the guests' alone and have not been reviewed by a WebMD physician. If you have questions about your health, you should consult your personal physician. This event is meant for informational purposes only.

MODERATOR:
Sandee, it has been almost one year since your husband, Larry LaMotte, drowned off the coast of Florida. Tell us what happened.

LAMOTTE:
It was our 10th year at the beach and we had never seen a red flag, so when we went out to the beach, we stopped and carefully read the sign that was under the flag. But it wasn't very clear. Were there dangerous currents at the shoreline or farther out? We looked out across the crowd and saw many families playing at the surf at the shore. We saw a sheriff's deputy drive through that crowd without stopping or commenting, and off the beach. Then we saw surfers way out in the waves and we decided since the deputy had not stopped, then the warning must be meant for them.

Like we had done for 10 years before, we played in the water at the shoreline. It was about 6:00 p.m. I left to start dinner. But Ryan, my 12-year-old son, got into trouble on his boogie board and could not exit the waves. So at the time, I didn't know any of this, I didn't know that Larry, my husband, had told my daughter Krysta to go back to the shore and then started to swim the couple of arm's length that it would take to get to Ryan.

It was at that point that he must have hit a rip current, because the next thing Ryan knew there was no daddy. Thanks to some brave people on the shore, they helped Ryan do what should have happened, which is paddle parallel and get out farther down the beach. Then both kids came running to find me. By the time I got there, Larry was gone.

MODERATOR:
Chris, Sandee says they read the sign at the beach about the flags, but that it wasn't clear. What kind of signage is there at most beaches?

BREWSTER:
Well, unfortunately, the reality throughout the U.S. and the world at the present time is that there is no consistent standard, and that's even true within the state of Florida, and has been for a while. In an effort to address that and resolve it, the International Lifesaving Federation, an international body of national lifeguard associations. has developed a standard, so that hopefully in the near future, this sort of uncertainty is unlikely to occur.

MODERATOR:
Sandee was there any information about a warning system at the vacation rental where you were staying?

LAMOTTE:
Not that was obvious. When I got back from the hospital that night and told my children their father had died, it took me a half an hour of searching through the menus, beach rental brochures, and other garbage collection information to find, at the bottom of one piece of paper that talked about shark attacks, dog permits, and glass at the beach, one small sentence which said, "Red flags mean don't go into the water."

MODERATOR:
Chris, can you explain rip currents?

BREWSTER:
Rip currents are channelized currents of water moving away from the beach, usually at a perpendicular angle from the shoreline, and they're caused when surf pushes water up on to the shoreline and gravity pulls that water back toward the sea. In some cases, that water being pulled back to sea concentrates in one area, thus causing a current of water moving away from shore. Clearly, based on my description, rip currents can only occur at surf beaches. They're also incorrectly referred to by many people as rip tides, but that's a misnomer, since tides have very little affect on the creation of rip currents.

MODERATOR:
What should we look for when going to the beach? Are there visual clues that rip currents are present?

BREWSTER:
We've tried, through our recent awareness campaign, to give people some idea of how to identify a rip current. I'll give a few of those examples, but I would preface my comments by stating that rip currents can be very subtle and difficult even for experts to spot, so the fact you may attend a beach and not see some of these clues doesn't mean it's safe.

Examples of what you might see:

  • A break in the breaking surf along the beach. In other words, you may see breaking waves all along the shoreline and suddenly there may what appears to be a calm area. That's typically because the water is deeper in that area and negating the effect of the incoming waves. This is one of the things that makes rip currents so dangerous since that area that I just described seems like a calmer and safer place to the untrained eye and, in fact, draws people toward the rip current.
  • Churned up water in a particular area, usually in a narrow channel or seemingly narrow channel of water moving away from the beach. That happens because the rip current churns up sand and seaweed, and other debris in some cases.