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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. Often mistaken for undertow, rip currents can occur at any beach with breaking waves. 

The currents are formed when water rushes out to sea in a narrow path. This happens when there is a break in a near shore sandbar or the current is diverted by a groin, jetty or other barrier. 

Rip currents can extend 1,000 feet offshore, reach 100 feet in width and travel up to 3 mph. Some are present for a few hours and others are permanent. Rip currents are more prevalent during windy conditions and after storms.

These powerful currents can pull even experienced swimmers away from shore – panic and drowning often result. The United States Lifesaving Association estimates that the annual number of deaths due to rip currents on the U.S.'s beaches exceeds 100.

Rip currents account for over 80% of rescues performed by surf beach lifeguards. The greatest safety precaution that can be taken is to recognize the danger of rip currents and always remember to swim at beaches with lifeguards.

 If caught in a rip current at an unguarded beach, how you respond could make the difference between life and death.

tides diagram
Don't fight a rip current, swim parallel to the shore.
Telltale Signs of Rip Currents
  • A difference in the waves – larger, choppier waves in the rip current; smaller, calmer waves in front of the sandbar
  • A difference in water colour – either murkier from sediments or darker from greater depth
  • Foam or objects moving swiftly out to sea
  • An offshore plume of turbid (murky) water past the sandbars
If You are Caught in a Rip Current
  • Don’t panic or try to swim against the current
  • Swim parallel to the shore until you are out of the current – rip currents are rarely more than 30 feet wide
  • If you can’t swim out of the current, float calmly until it dissipates
beach
People caught in a rip current.
Swept Away

A group of 21 students, two teachers and three chaperones hiked the Lost Coast Trail in northern California during spring break. The trip ended with the death of three of the group's members.

Two students, David Elton and Brodie MacDonald, died when they tried to save parent chaperone Barbara Clement, 45, after she was hit by a wave and fell into the rough waters of the Pacific Ocean.

The waves along the Lost Coast Trail were high, but high tide was still three-and-a-half hours away. And it was only a 45-minute walk to the end of the trail.

No one was concerned the trail may be impassable for the group of hikers travelling south, made up of nine high school students, two parents and a teacher from William Aberhart High School in Calgary.

But what happened over the next hour would change the lives of the entire group forever.

After a short lunch break, the students set out to complete the final leg of the hike. Parent chaperones Larry Taggart and Barbara Clement, and teacher Martin Poirier, followed close behind.

The group reached Split Rock, a locally known landmark located at Black Sands Beach, around 12:30 p.m. Waves were splashing high between the rocks, but the group walked through. Just past the landmark, one of the parents forged ahead to catch up with his daughter.

They walked in a surge channel, an erosion feature characteristic of a high-energy wave beach, when the waves started soaking their feet. The sides of the rock were a metre to a metre-and-a-half high.

beach
Never hike alone!

As Clement looked toward some of the students, her back to the ocean, a "wave hit her at ankle-to-knee height, and she fell backwards onto a steeply sloping beach as the water receded," says an independent report.

She struggled to undo her pack as she was pushed along the length of the beach. David Elton and Brodie MacDonald, both 17, threw off their backpacks and ran toward her.

Clement was being carried by a rush of water coming off the sides of the surge channel. But no one recognized the real danger she was in.

Poirier and Jordan Nixon, a 17-year-old student, also took off their packs, and ran to Clement's assistance.

"I couldn't imagine just watching my friends die and do nothing," Nixon said later. "I had to do something."

Steve Everett, another student, followed suit, but stopped as he was sucked down the channel.

Clement was struggling to stay on her feet along the surf line. She was still trying to get her pack loose.

Elton and MacDonald were next to her, trying to keep their balance as the water surged around them. Poirier and Nixon stood a few metres back.

coast
When you hike along a shoreline, make sure you know when the high tide is coming in so you have time to move away from the water.

Another wave, over four-metres high, roared in. It washed over Clement, Elton and MacDonald, hitting Poirier and Nixon as it washed ashore. Up the trail, Taggart witnessed the wave break over the hikers.

The water hit him at chest level and popped Taggart up like a cork. "He felt himself tumble and got a mouthful of salt," says the internal report. "He thought it would pull him in, too."

But he was able to dig his toes into the sand, and by the time the water started to recede, he was able to stand.

When Everett saw his friends being pulled into the current, he ran two kilometres to call for help.

The coast guard was having trouble with its helicopter, and put a distress call out to locals.

Jim Ponts, a local fisherman, helped recover the body of Clement, who had drowned in the cold ocean. The other fishermen plucked Poirier and Nixon, both near death, out of the rough waters.

But MacDonald and Elton were nowhere to be found, leading to a search lasting a total of four days.

Their families scoured the shoreline. Days later, within hours of each other, the boys' bodies washed up at the end of the trail.

"Every time someone looks at the ocean, they'll think of it. Every time you look at your camping gear and smell the campfire smoke, you will remember," said student Sarah Taggart, then 17. "These are painful memories. But above the pain, there is beauty. If we can remember we had an amazing trip -- it was a beautiful, beautiful coastline -- if we can remember that, then we will remember them and their love for the outdoors."

Days after the bodies of the boys washed up on shore, Culbert led the families in a tearful memorial service at the same spot. "You never ever get over something like this, ever," he said. "You get used to it, but you never get over it."

beach
Enjoy the relaxation of the beach, but be wary of the force of the water.
Hiking Safety Issues

Any hike, regardless of duration or the familiarity of the route, may possibly go awry. Possible mishaps include injury unexpected inclement weather, and losing the trail. A simple set of equipment may allow the hiker to escape from any of these predicaments. One list of such equipment is the Scout Outdoor Essentials. The ultimate decision whether or not to bring any of this equipment is entirely at the hiker's discretion, and many hikers opt to leave most or all of it at home.

Another simple safety precaution is to give the itinerary and expected time of return to someone not on the hike. If the hiking party fails to return reasonably close to the projected time, this person will notify authorities and search parties will be summoned.

Cellular or satellite phones can be a valuable aid. While a call to authorities may not bring rescue helicopters, a phone can be used to get up-to-date weather forecasts, and first-aid instructions. Additionally, it allows closer communication between the hikers and friends at home with regard to search parties, pickup, and other issues that may arise.

Extra clothing can be critically important, in cases such as unexpectedly low temperatures, or falling into bodies of water (wet clothes cause hypothermia).
 

 

They Came Close to Death

A trip to the north shore to seek some relief from the heat and humidity of an unusually balmy September day almost cost a Charlottetown couple their lives after they were caught up in a rip current.

Charlottetown lawyer Gordon Campbell and his wife Barb were just minutes away from a watery grave when they successfully extricated themselves from the pull of the current and began to make their way to the safety of shore.

"I've never come that close to death before, never realized how easy it could be to die," Gordon Campbell said.

"You expect death to come harder than that."

The Campbells, Barb's sister Wendy and her husband Mike Hancox had travelled to a beach known by regulars as Little Brackley.

Popular with swimmers because it's a little less crowded than other areas of the north shore, Little Brackley is an unsupervised beach, although it does have change houses and washrooms. The Campbells have swum there for years and know it well.

But on that day the surf was higher than usual and Gordon Campbell and Mike Hancox spent an enjoyable 20 minutes diving into the waves before the situation began to turn.

"I was just about to go in when I realized I was a lot further out than I thought I was," Campbell said. "I don't remember going that far out."

Campbell made a move to swim to shore but it only took a minute to realize he wasn't getting anywhere.

"I wasn't going anywhere and I was swallowing a lot of water. I yelled to Mike that I couldn't get in. He was closer to shore than I was, but he was in the same situation. He yelled at me that he couldn't get in either. I yelled for help and when I heard myself yell, I really got scared."

beach
Calm waters can turn into a deadly rip current.

Hancox started to yell towards shore and Barb Campbell, who'd been on shore, hit the water, reaching Hancox within a matter of minutes.

"Mike was turning gray and holding his chest but was closer to shore than Gordon," Barb Campbell said.

When she reached her husband, his situation was not at all good, but Barb, a nurse and a former lifeguard, believed she could save him.

"I'm telling myself I know this stuff, I know what to do."

But it quickly became apparent to her that the situation was worsening.

"I tried to talk to him, to keep him focused and to keep him with me. He didn't panic, but he was exhausted, he was turning gray and every time we tried to breathe we took in water."

Gordon Campbell said at that point he could barely lift his arms, he had difficulty processing information and his mind had turned to fudge.

With their efforts to swim to shore getting them nowhere, they came to the harsh realization they were about to die.

Seconds that seemed like hours ticked by when Barb noticed her sister frantically waving sideways from shore. That's when her training came back to her. She had been taught that when caught in a rip current, you do not try to swim back towards shore, but swim parallel to shore until you're out of the current, then head for shore.

Though physically and emotionally drained, the Campbells, fueled by hope and the will to get through this for their children, mustered up enough strength to do just that. They got away from the current and within minutes, two large waves carried them close enough to shore.

currents
Aerial view of a rip current.
If you see Someone in Trouble

Don't become a victim too:

  • Get help from a lifeguard.

  • If a lifeguard is not available, have someone call 9-1-1.

  • Throw the rip current victim something that floats--a lifejacket, a cooler, an inflatable ball.

  • Yell instructions on how to escape.
Remember, many people drown while trying to save someone else from a rip current.
When at the Beach
  • Whenever possible, swim at a lifeguard-protected beach.

  • Never swim alone.

  • Learn how to swim in the surf.  It's not the same as swimming in a pool or lake.

  • Be cautious at all times, especially when swimming at unguarded beaches. If in doubt, don’t go out.

  • Obey all instructions and orders from lifeguards. Lifeguards are trained to identify potential hazards. Ask a lifeguard about the conditions before entering the water. This is part of their job.

  • Stay at least 100 feet away from piers and jetties. Permanent rip currents often exist along side these structures.

  • Consider using polarized sunglasses when at the beach. They will help you to spot signatures of rip currents by cutting down glare and reflected sunlight off the ocean’s surface.

  • Pay especially close attention to children and elderly when at the beach. Even in shallow water, wave action can cause loss of footing.

crowded beach
Crowded beach with rip currents.
Hiking Along the Coastline

It is essential that hikers bring with them a current tide table and be aware of tide changes. Hiking along the coastline is considered dangerous and discouraged unless you are following a designated beach path. Good hiking boots and raingear are necessary.

Torrential rain is normal at any time of year including the summer. This can make trails very muddy, and sections can become very slippery when wet. Certain regions receive a lot of precipitation annually, and violent storms can result in gale force winds.

Prepared, experienced backpackers will enjoy the thrill of travelling in unpredictable environments.

cliff
Don't get too close to a cliff's edge. You might fall!
Hiking Tips

Be careful where you are walking. Watch out for low branches and loose rocks. Take it slow through mud and water and be careful of loose leaves on the trail. Stay away from steep cliffs and other drop off areas.

Keep track of your progress on the map so that you know where you are at all times.

Proper planning is important. Obtain trail maps, guidebooks, trail distance, estimated time required and any other information before you leave on a hike.

Check weather conditions and forecast.

Consider the ability level of everyone in your group, when choosing a hike.

It's very important to tell someone of your plans and when you expect to return. In an emergency, this could help with the rescue. Check in with them when you get back.

Never hike alone. Always go with a friend.

Don't pack too heavy. Keep your pack weight as light as possible.

Take plenty of water--2 or 3 quarts per person. Staying hydrated will help maintain your energy level.

Dress in layers.

Stay on trails unless you have excellent navigational skills.

Stay far away from cliff dropoffs and coastlines, as you could fall off or be swept away by water.

Keep track of your progress on the map so that you know where you are at all times.

Don't drink alcohol when hiking.

Hiking sticks or poles may help make your trip a little easier by giving you some stability on wet trails, and reducing strain on your legs when going up or down slopes.

Bring a whistle on hikes. Three short whistles mean you are in trouble and need assistance.

cliffs
The view may be beautiful, but the waves are deadly.
Beware of Tidal Currents
School's out, the beaches are open, the hiking trails are waiting to be walked upon; Summer is here. It is the perfect time to go for a swim or take a hike along the shoreline. However, calm waters can quickly turn into violent waves and rip currents that will sweep you away