Skip to main content

Originally published Monday, July 28, 2014 at 2:20 PM

  • Share:
  • Comments
  • Print

Understanding the dangers of rip currents

Swimmers and surfers can get caught in the sometimes deadly currents.

Associated Press


CAROLINA BEACH, N.C.) — Vincent Klock was bodysurfing toward the beach when his momentum suddenly turned and he was whisked away from shore. He was caught in a rip current.

“The current was just pulling me,” the New Jersey man recalled as he sat on a North Carolina beach earlier this week. “I didn’t really know what was going on.”

Scientists wading into the surf nearby were hoping to find some answers.

As Klock and others soaked up the sun along Carolina Beach, researchers from the North Carolina Sea Grant and the University of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia, launched a series of GPS-equipped “drifters” in hopes of better understanding deadly rip currents.

“Any beach with breaking waves is going to have rips,” Rob Brander, a coastal geomorphologist and senior lecturer at the Australian university, said as he held one of the green-and-white devices Wednesday. “And if you don’t know what a rip current is, you’re at risk.”

Rip currents claimed at least 83 lives last year along U.S. coastlines, according to the National Weather Service. Experts believe the actual toll was even higher.

The United States Lifesaving Association, a nonprofit lifeguard group, estimates there are around 100 rip current deaths per year. Scientists at Florida International University place the annual toll at around 150, “and they estimate there’s probably a lot more than that,” says Deborah Jones, a weather service program analyst and outreach coordinator with the rip current program in Silver Spring, Maryland.

Many people swim at night or on remote beaches with no lifeguards, Jones said.

“So you can’t account for everybody who might have drowned in a rip current,” she said.

About 80 percent of swimmers who need to be rescued in the ocean are caught in them, according to the lifeguard group.

Brander, known in the field as “Dr. Rip,” said the currents are basically like a “river of the ocean.”

“Rivers flow in one direction,” said Brander, who’s spending a month at the Center for Marine Science at the University of North Carolina-Wilmington. “They’re narrow, and they flow offshore. And that’s where they’re going to take you.”

Klock knows that all too well. He’s been caught in at least three, the worst back home in Jersey.

“I was like, ‘Wow,’ because you can feel it pulling you out,” he said. “And I just turned my body and started to swim until I broke the current.”

Brander said the scientists used inexpensive, off-the-shelf, GPS units connected to multiple satellites to log locational data. Then they processed the data for accuracy.

Jordan Cornelius is a lifeguard who has seen plenty of rip currents. He said the currents form when there is a break between two sandbars in the water. And they’re hard for the average beachgoer to see.

“I’ve seen them start from immediately right on the shore, to going just 20 yards out,” he said.

Four weeks for 99 cents of unlimited digital access to The Seattle Times. Try it now!

News where, when and how you want it

Email Icon

 Subscribe today!

Subscribe today!

99¢ for four weeks of unlimited digital access.



The Seattle Times

The door is closed, but it's not locked.

Take a minute to subscribe and continue to enjoy The Seattle Times for as little as 99 cents a week.

Subscription options ►

Already a subscriber?

We've got good news for you. Unlimited content access is included with most subscriptions.

Subscriber login ►
The Seattle Times

To keep reading, you need a subscription upgrade.

We hope you have enjoyed your complimentary access. For unlimited access, please upgrade your digital subscription.

Call customer service at 1.800.542.0820 for assistance with your upgrade or questions about your subscriber status.

The Seattle Times

To keep reading, you need a subscription.

We hope you have enjoyed your complimentary access. Subscribe now for unlimited access!

Subscription options ►

Already a subscriber?

We've got good news for you. Unlimited content access is included with most subscriptions.

Activate Subscriber Account ►