Community Extra: Rip currents can kill, prepare yourselfIn 2003, a 21-year-old man died in a rip current while swimming along Minnesota Point, and there were several other rip current rescues in 2003 and 2004.
By: Duluth Parks and Recreation Dept., Budgeteer News
On hot summer days, the waters of Lake Superior sparkle invitingly along the recreational beach of Park Point. It is here swimmers get a sense of potential rip current danger.
Rip currents are formed when waves break near the shoreline, piling up water between the breaking waves and the beach. One of the ways that this water returns to the lake is to form a rip current, a narrow jet of water moving swiftly offshore, roughly perpendicular to the shoreline. Rip currents occur on many beaches every day.
Rip currents most typically form at low spots or breaks in sandbars and also near structures, such as groins, jetties and piers. Rip currents can occur at any beach with breaking waves, which includes beaches on the Great Lakes.
In 2003, a 21-year-old man died in a rip current while swimming along Minnesota Point, and there were several other rip current rescues in 2003 and 2004.
Nationwide, rip currents are responsible for more than 80 percent of lifeguard rescues and claim more than 100 lives each year — more than hurricanes, lightning, floods and tornadoes. Their occurrence in the Great Lakes has been known for many years, but recent events have brought them to the forefront of our attention.
It is important to know how to identify rip currents and know how to get out of one if caught.
There are several visual clues for spotting rip currents: a break in the incoming wave pattern; a channel of churning, choppy water; a channel with a different water color; or foam or objects moving steadily away from shore.
There is a local Rip Current Working Group, comprised of various local, state and federal agencies, that is working on improving public safety. One of its efforts to protect beachgoers this summer is to provide swimmers with another way to access the rip current danger on Lake Superior on any given day: by looking at strategically located flags.
Green flags will mean the threat is low; yellow will indicate the threat is moderate; and red will mean that the rip current threat is high. The flags will be noticeable to beachgoers at three strategic locations: at the 12th Street South “S” curve on Minnesota Avenue, at the Lafayette Community Center and on the curve in front of the playground at the entrance to Park Point.
The Duluth Fire Department will be responsible for changing the flags, based on the National Weather Service’s rip current risk forecast.
A number of volunteer “beach observers” have been trained to monitor beach and surf conditions. They are instructed to report observed rip currents so that beachgoers can make well-informed decisions about their safety in the water. These observers will also be taking other daily beach measurements. The data they compile will be used for further rip current studies.
Rip current advice
Most importantly, learn how to swim!
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 alongside 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 water’s surface. Pay especially close attention to children and the elderly when at the beach. Even in shallow water, wave action can cause loss of footing.
If caught in a rip current: Remain calm to conserve energy and think clearly. Never fight against the current. Think of it like a treadmill that cannot be turned off, requiring you to step aside. Swim out of the current in a direction following the shoreline. When out of the current, swim at an angle — away from the current — toward shore.
If you are unable to swim out of the rip current, float or calmly tread water. When out of the current, swim toward shore. If you are still unable to reach shore, draw attention to yourself by waving your arms and yelling for help.
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 911. Throw the rip current victim something that floats: a life jacket, 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.
This column was submitted by Duluth’s Parks and Recreation department. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org with questions.