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Dealing with Rip Currents in Ocean City

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The ocean can be a very safe place if you take the time to understand beach and water safety. Many misconceptions about the ocean exist and contribute to one of the biggest factors behind people getting into trouble. That factor is fear. If you understand how currents work and take proper precautions before jumping in, it’s easy to safely enjoy the ocean. When you don’t have a proper understanding of beach safety and water safety, fear and panic can take over and jeopardize your safety.

Rip currents and longshore currents aren’t an uncommon fear, but being afraid of the currents won’t help you practice effective water safety if you accidentally find yourself caught in one. One of the biggest misconceptions with these currents is that they pull you underwater, but this simply isn’t true. More often than not, fear, panic and unpreparedness are responsible for swimmers being pulled under by strong currents. In an emergency situation, understanding the currents and knowing how to swim out of them is your best bet for staying safe.

Beach Patrol

Tasked with keeping our beaches and ocean safe, the Ocean City Beach Patrol is one of the most integral entities in Ocean City. The Beach Patrol is comprised of young men and women who vigorously train under the tutelage of veteran leaders to ensure swimmers and beach goers stay safe at all times. The OCBP is broken up into 17 individual crews, each of which operates as a team to man the 5 or 6 lifeguard stands on its assigned beach, with the crew chief stand located in the center. Read more…

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What are rip currents?

Rip currents are powerful, channeled currents of water flowing away from shore. They typically extend from the shoreline, through the surf zone, and past the line of breaking waves. Rip currents can occur at any beach with breaking waves, whether it’s by the Atlantic Ocean or the Great Lakes.

Why do they form?

As waves travel from deep to shallow water, they will break near the shoreline. When waves break strongly in some locations and weakly in others, this can cause circulation cells which are seen as rip currents: narrow, fast-moving belts of water traveling offshore.

When do they form?

Rip currents can be found on many surf beaches every day. Under most tide and sea conditions the speeds are relatively slow. However, under certain wave, tide and beach profile conditions, the speeds can quickly increase to become dangerous to anyone entering the surf. The strength and speed of a rip current will likely increase as wave height and wave period increase. They are most likely to be dangerous during high surf conditions as the wave height and wave period increase.

Where do they form?

Rip currents most typically form at low spots or breaks in sandbars, and also near structures such as groins, jetties and piers. Rip currents can be very narrow or extend in widths to hundreds of yards. The seaward pull of rip currents varies: sometimes the rip current ends just beyond the line of breaking waves, but sometimes rip currents continue to push hundreds of yards offshore.

Why are rip currents dangerous?

Rip currents are the leading surf hazard for all beach goers, and they’re particularly dangerous for weak or non-swimmers. Rip current speeds are typically 1-2 feet per second. However, speeds as high as 8 feet per second have been measured–faster than an Olympic swimmer can sprint! Thus, rip currents can sweep even the strongest swimmer out to sea.

How to identify rip currents

Look for any of these clues:

  • a channel of churning, choppy water
  • an area having a notable difference in water color
  • a line of foam, seaweed or debris moving steadily seaward
  • a break in the incoming wave pattern

How to avoid rip currents (or survive if you get caught in one)

  • Never swim alone.
  • Be cautious at all times, especially when swimming at unguarded beaches. When in doubt, don’t go out!
  • Whenever possible, swim at a lifeguard protected beach.
  • Obey all instructions and orders from lifeguards.
  • If caught in a rip current, remain calm to conserve energy and think clearly.
  • Don’t fight the current. Swim out of the current in a direction following the shoreline. When out of the current, swim towards shore.
  • 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: face the shore, wave your arms and yell for help.
  • If you see someone in trouble, get help from a lifeguard. If a lifeguard is not available, have someone call 911. Throw the rip current victim something that floats and yell instructions on how to escape. Remember, many people drown while trying to save someone else from a rip current.

Rip current myth – Contary to popular belief, rip currents do not pull people under the water–-they pull people away from shore. Drowning deaths occur when people pulled offshore are unable to keep themselves afloat and swim to shore. This may be due to any combination of fear, panic, exhaustion or lack of swimming skills.

Longshore current – A current located in the surf zone, moving generally parallel to the shoreline, generated by waves breaking at an angle with the shoreline, also called the alongshore current. Water will drift with the direction of the wind. The best thing to understand with this current is that you will drift up or down the beach with the current, and you want to be aware of that fact. As you drift to a certain point, exit the water and walk back up the beach to your entry point. You always want to turn around once in a while and pay attention to your location in reference to where you entered the water. Strong winds can make the longshore current very strong and fast. Pick out a street number or landmark. Tip: Do not pick out the lifeguard chairs or umbrellas as there are hundreds up and down the beach.

Another thing you should always be aware of is water depth. Many people are under the impression that there is deep water underneath waves breaking along the beach, but in reality, waves break as they travel into shallow(er) water. This means that when you’re playing in the ocean, there is not a lot of water under you. Why is this important? Just like we don’t want to dive into a shallow swimming pool, we don’t want to go head first into the sand. Simply understanding this before stepping into the water is a huge preventative measure.

Most of these may sound like common sense, but understanding and reinforcing them ensures safety in the ocean. Don’t be scared of the ocean, but instead understand it and know your limits, so you can enjoy it.



Tony Russo
Tony Russohttp://Ossurynot.com
Tony Russo has worked as a print and digital journalist for the better part of the 21st century, writing for and editing regional weeklies and dailies before joining the team that produces OceanCity.com and ShoreCraftBeer.com among other destination websites. In addition to having documented everything from zoning changes to art movements on the Delmarva Peninsula, Tony has written two books on beer for the History Press. Eastern Shore Beer was published in 2014 and Delaware Beer in 2016. He lives in Delmar, Md. with his wife Kelly and the only of his four daughters who hasn't moved out. Together they keep their two dogs comfortable.

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