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Extreme Weather in the Caribbean Part 3: Rip Currents

A rip current (shown in purple in this image) can be extremely dangerous for even the best swimmers. (Photo courtesy of the NWS/NOAA)

As mentioned in Part 1 and Part 2 of this series on “Extreme Weather in the Caribbean,” extraordinary weather incidents — aside from hurricanes — can occur in the region and severely impact the USVI and nearby islands. Preparing for dangerous weather events such as volcanic eruptions, earthquakes, and tsunamis is vital.  

Rip currents are another extreme weather-related phenomenon that happen relatively frequently around the islands. Being caught in a rip current can be life-threatening without the knowledge of how to survive.

The Source spoke with Ernesto Morales, a warning coordination meteorologist at the National Weather Service in San Juan, Puerto Rico, about rip currents, including how to identify them and how to stay safe. 

What is a Rip Current? 

To understand how to survive a powerful rip current, it’s necessary to recognize what these currents are and why they can quickly become dangerous for swimmers.

“Rip currents are currents of water flowing away from the shore at surf beaches. They typically extend from near the shoreline, through the surf zone, and past the line of breaking waves,” according to the NWS website on rip current safety.

“Rip currents are present on many beaches every day of the year, but they are usually too slow to be dangerous to beachgoers. Certain waves, tides, and beach shape conditions can increase rip currents to dangerous speeds,” the NWS site adds. (It’s important to note that a rip current can spread both across a narrow area or a very wide portion of water.) 

The “dangerous speeds” of some currents create hazardous conditions. 

“A rip current develops when energy is trying to go back into the ocean,” said Morales. “For example, if you get a big wave hitting near shore, right now, all that energy, all of that water is coming into the shore, but the energy [has to go back]. Rip currents tend to drag the people, the swimmers, quickly to offshore waters,” he explained.   

A rip current safety graphic from the National Weather Service “Rip Current Safety Website.” (Photo courtesy NOAA and NWS)

Morales described that some areas could be more prone to rip currents, including locations with structures like jetties. While rip currents can happen at any shoreline, he said that changes in tides and major swell events are a factor in the formation of these currents.  

“[Rip currents] are very common where we live here and across the islands. Especially during a big swell event, all that wave action, the swell action coming into the shore brings a lot of energy. The return [of the energy back out to the ocean] will regenerate a type of rip current,” Morales said. 

Identifying a Rip Current 

In addition to understanding areas along the shore where rip currents are more prone to occur (near jetties, for instance), it is also possible to spot areas where rip currents could be happening.  

The NWS lists the following signs to watch out for: 

  • A channel of churning, choppy water 
  • An area having a notable difference in water color 
  • A line of foam, seaweed, or debris moving steadily seaward 
  • A break in the incoming wave pattern 
  • One, all, or none of these clues may be visible

Morales added that an area of moving sand or a brown cloud in the water could indicate a strong current nearby. 

The location of rip currents changes due to circumstances such as the wind direction and wind speed and whether a powerful swell event is occurring. And while it is not possible to forecast precisely when or where a rip current could strike, the “Marine Forecast” from the NWS can provide insight into hazardous conditions in the ocean. 

“[Where a rip current happens] will always depend on: first, where the winds are blowing and from which direction, and second, where the swells are coming from,” Morales stated. “These two factors are very important because if [a coastline] is exposed to stronger winds or bigger waves, those beaches will be more prone to rip currents.”

Helpful information about rip current safety is available from the National Weather Service. (NWS official logo courtesy NWS/NOAA)

How to Escape a Rip Current and Stay Safe 

The NWS lists helpful and potentially lifesaving instructions (included below) for individuals caught in a rip current. 

The most important factors to remember if caught in a rip current are: 

  • Relax. Rip currents don’t pull you under. 
  • A rip current is a natural treadmill that travels an average speed of 1-2 feet per second but has been measured as fast as 8 feet per second — faster than an Olympic swimmer. Trying to swim against a rip current will only use up your energy — energy you need to survive and escape the rip current. 
  • Do NOT try to swim directly to shore. Swim along the shoreline until you escape the current’s pull. When free from the pull of the current, swim at an angle away from the current toward shore. 
  • If you feel you can’t reach the shore, relax, face the shore, and call or wave for help. Remember: If in doubt, don’t go out! 
  • If at all possible, only swim at beaches with lifeguards.
  • If you choose to swim on beaches without a lifeguard, never swim alone. Take a friend who has a cell phone, so that person can call 911 for help.

According to Morales, the most critical piece of advice, if pulled by the ocean, is to remember to try to remain calm. Keep in mind that it might take some time to swim back to the shore, but it is possible to do so, and the current will eventually let up. 

“The biggest problem we have with rip currents is that . . . suddenly waves break, and when it’s pulling back, it will rip a person backward and out into the open ocean. People get nervous, and that’s when tragedy happens,” Morales explained.   

“The suggestion is if you get dragged by a rip current, just relax. Wait until the water loses the energy [that is] pulling you back, and then you swim around the area of the rip current,” Morales noted. (Swimming parallel to the shoreline is critical when escaping the current’s pull.) 

Unfortunately, drownings happen in the USVI and Puerto Rico each year due to rip currents. Learning how to swim before ever entering any body of water is one of the best tips to survive a rip current. 

“The best way [to stay safe] is learning how to swim. It’s very important to feel comfortable in the ocean and to feel comfortable swimming offshore,” Morales noted. “Not all beaches and not every coastline is favorable for swimming. That’s very important for a lot of the locals and tourists [to remember].”

How Can People Assist Others Who Are Caught in a Rip Current?  

The NWS also provides the following suggestions for other beachgoers on how to offer aid to someone in an emergency situation. 

  • Alert the lifeguard. If no lifeguard is available, call 911. 
  • Throw the rip current victim something that floats, such as a life jacket, cooler, beach ball, etc. 
  • Yell to the victim to swim parallel to the shoreline until they escape the pull.
  • Many would-be rescuers have drowned trying to help others. Don’t become a victim while trying to help someone else. Call for assistance.

USVI residents and visitors can always stay updated on weather events on the V.I. Source Weather page and sign up for alerts from the National Weather Service and the Virgin Islands Territorial Emergency Management Agency. 

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