80% of all beach-related lifeguard rescues are due to rip currents. According to a report by ABC News, rip tides claimed the lives of an estimated 72 swimmers in 2010, although the number could have been higher. Due to early deaths, the number was likely much higher in 2011. On average, 100 people die every summer from rip currents, yet the dangers of these evil ocean phenomena are likely unknown by the majority of the beach-going population.
Research on rip currents have been ongoing for over 75 years, but scientists have been able to form a general picture of how rip currents come to exist. Complex interactions between normal waves, the ocean current, water level, the ocean floor, and the wind can lead to a rip current formation in 21 different possibilities. They are extremely forceful currents that extend past the breaking point for waves. Although rip tides flow toward the ocean, waves and/or wind forces them sideways, giving little notice to swimmers who are within reach of the current's breaking point.
In fact, most swimmers have no idea what danger they are in even when the rip current is pulling them toward the ocean. Lifeguards are more-often-than-not successful in saving the victims, but many times a lifeguard can be caught off-hand and the victim will not know what to do.
The sad fact, however, is that little can be done once a rip current hits. The undertoe, or underlying force, is so strong that balance of the lower half of the body is lost first and unable to be recaptured. Swimming opposite the current may have no effect. These tides are often augmented by sand dunes. Most travel 3-8 feet per second and claim their prey through unyielding force and spontaneous action.
They pose a greater threat than sharks do, yet a shark threat causes a bout of action that a rip current does not. Gerry Falconer, as mentioned in the ABC News article, notes this and recognizes the fact that this needs to be changed.
The article includes a clip demonstrating the way that a rip current can be escaped. Not only is it an interesting watch, but it is entirely educational and made exclusively for the safety of all beach goers. Tips to survive a rip tide include swimming parallel to the shore rather than perpendicular, or against the current. Swimming against will prove fruitless and lead to greater exhaustion and a greater rate of drowning before a lifeguard comes to the scene.
Although many people may considering this as "something that would never happen" to them, the unforeseen current is something that could happen to anyone, regardless of size, age, gender, etc.
Lifeguards are a major reason why more deaths by rip tides do not occur. If 100 people die each year by rip currents, and lifeguards save 80% of rip current victims, an average of 500 people would die if lifeguards did not exact. Most rip current deaths occur because lifeguards are not on duty or are not present to save the victim. Although many beaches have posted signs warning swimmers about the dangers of rip currents, they often go unnoticed and add very little to the education of swimmers on these possible dangers.
While 100 deaths a year is a very small percentage of everyone that attends a beach throughout the year, one of those deaths could be your own. Before heading out to the beach, educate yourself on the dangers of rip currents and what can be done to avoid such a threatening wrath.