The currents that will ‘rip’ your trunks off: why don’t people see the risk?

Rip currents are a dangerous coastal hazard. A simple statement that most casual beach users would tend to agree with. Why, then, are so many of those same people ignorant of the risks posed by rip current currents? Why do many beach users, excepting perhaps experienced surfers, fail to spot the dangers and still end up in need of rescue? The simple answer is awareness and education.

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Rip current dye experiment (Photo: Rob Brander [www.scienceofthesurf.com])
Rip currents are seaward orientated, jet-like flows variable in time and space and they account on average for 68% of the UK’s Royal National Lifeboat Institution’s (RNLI) lifeguard beach rescue efforts (Scott et al., 2008). A recent Australian study (Brander et al., 2013) showed that, on average, rip currents account for more deaths per year than cyclones, floods, bushfires and shark attacks combined. So why do so few people appreciate the risk? After all, everyone is aware of the risks posed by cyclones, bushfires, shark attacks and floods, and these kill fewer people. The authors term these other natural hazards as ‘sudden onset’ hazards; they are incidents that typically fall into the public eye as they occur and take large numbers of lives at once. Rip currents, on the other hand, are much more attritional by nature. Rips may claim one life on a certain beach, then another elsewhere a few weeks later and so on. This ultimately means they avoid the attention of the media and the public, despite their ability to slowly accrue victims over time. The same is true of the UK, with the media currently littered with stories about coastal flooding. What escapes the media spotlight is the fact that the RNLI responded to around 1050 incidents as a direct result of rip currents in 2012,  saving the lives of 55 people (based on broad analysis of the RNLI 2012 operational statistics). Statistics for actual deaths in the UK as a result of rip currents are far harder to come by, however, it is likely in the range 10-12 people per year. This figure is up for debate, as statistics are only reported for lifeguarded beaches during working hours.

Rip currents are not always the easiest to spot, and in fact, the unwary beach user will typically select the seemingly calm water of a rip channel for their recreation. The water appears calm because it is deeper and therefore there is no wave breaking. Inevitably, at certain stages of the tide, this rip channel becomes active, flushing water from the inner surfzone out beyond the breakers, along with anyone caught in it. A study of victim demographics in the UK by Woodward et al., (2013) shows the majority of rip incidents to be as a result of bodyboarding, with lifeguards recording a narrative of ‘inexperience’ against 32% of all bodyboard rescues. The major victim demographic involved in rip incidents are teenagers, which again is indicative of inexperience as a major factor.

Rip currents are horizontal currents; they will not pull you under the surface. Armed with this knowledge, the best advice in a rip current is to stay calm. You won’t get dragged under. You may well re-circulate towards the shore. In any case, tread water and search laterally for an exit to the rip. Ultimately, if you can stay afloat then the rip is very unlikely to cause you trouble. If you are on a beach patrolled by lifeguards, raise your hand to attract attention. Finally, remember that Composure will Combat the Current.

References:

Brander, R., Dominey-Howes, D., Champion, C., Del Vecchio, O., and Brighton, B., 2013. Brief communication: a new perspective on the Australian rip current hazard. Natural Hazards and Earth System Sciences. 13: 1687-1690.

RNLI, 2012. RNLI Operational Statistics Report 2012. Poole, Dorset, UK.

Scott, T.M., Russell, P.E., Masselink, G., and Wooler, A., 2008. High volume sediment transport and its implications for recreational beach risk. Proceedings of the 31stInternational Conference on Coastal Engineering, Hamburg, Germany.

Woodward, E., Beaumont, E., Russell, P., Wooler, A., and Macleod, R., 2013. Analysis of rip current incidents and victim demographics in the UK. Proceedings of the 12thInternational Coastal Symposium, Plymouth, England.


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