Rip current awareness is key to beach safety
By Cindie Powell,Texas Sea Grant
Dr. Chris Houser was studying rip current development on a beach in Florida when he noticed something curious: many beach goers were spreading their beach blankets on the sand directly in front of an active rip current and swimming in the rip channel.
Houser began questioning the group, “Why did you choose this location?” A geography professor at Texas A&M University, Houser found the answer surprising — the beach visitors thought the area of the active rip current was the safer choice because it looked calmer than the breaking surf on either side.
Rip currents kill more than 100 people every year on U.S. surf beaches. Rips may appear as choppy surf or unusually smooth water between breaking waves. In a study funded by Texas Sea Grant, Houser and fellow Texas A&M geographer, Dr. Christian Brannstrom, are assessing Texas beachgoer knowledge of rip currents, including if they can identify and avoid them. Houser and Brannstrom want to use the information gathered to create signs and other educational materials to better help people spot these dangerous currents.
Following up on a previous study Houser conducted in Florida, three Texas A&M geography graduate students surveyed beach visitors in Galveston and the Port Aransas/Corpus Christi area. Using five photographs of a wide range of surf conditions around the same rock groin, the students asked visitors which photo showed the most dangerous area and if they could identify the rip current.
Despite more than half of the surveyed beachgoers correctly choosing the photo with a large rip current as the most dangerous, most failed to identify the rip current, instead believing it was located in the area of rough surf. These results, in which only 22 percent in Galveston and 12 percent in the Port Aransas/Corpus Christi area accurately pinpointed the rip current, echoed Houser’s earlier experiences in Florida.
The researchers’ next challenge is to find a way to help the majority of beachgoers identify rip currents in their various guises. “If we know that what people are looking for as hazards when they go to the beach are the heavy breaking white waves, then there needs to be information out there that sometimes what you can’t see can be more dangerous,” Houser said.
Many of the rip current signs on American beaches were developed to support the “Break the Grip of the Rip” campaign, launched in 2004 through a partnership of the United States Lifesaving Association (USLA), National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Nation Weather Service (NOAA NWS) and the National Sea Grant College Program. The campaign also educates the public during Rip Current Awareness Week, which takes place the first full week of June each year.
USLA President B. Chris Brewster said the signs, which instruct people to stay calm if they are caught in a rip, are most valuable for swimmers in areas without lifeguards. “Panic is one of the biggest problems with people fighting rip currents. Just letting them know that they can get out of a rip current using some fairly simple techniques reduces the likelihood of panic.”
Brewster finds the campaign has been successful in its primary goals: increasing awareness of and dispelling myths about rip currents, and helping people learn how to escape a rip current if caught in one. “The signs and the educational effort have raised awareness substantially about the existence of rip currents and their prevalence wherever there is surf.”