‘If in doubt, don’t go out’ that is the beach safety message these Summer holidays.
Thinking of swimming at unpatrolled beaches this summer? Don’t do it until you know the risks says Dr Rip.
Sadly, last summer, 54 people drowned in 90 days along the Australian coast. All of them occurred in unpatrolled locations, including 78 percent on beaches.
Professor Rob Brander – aka Dr Rip – a surf scientist with UNSW Sydney’s School of Biological, Earth and Environmental Sciences, has studied the rip current hazard on beaches from both physical and social science perspectives for the past 30 years.
“If in doubt, don’t go out.”Dr Rip, aka Prof. Rob Brander
“If you’re alone on the beach, and there’s no one around, and you’re not a surfer or an experienced ocean swimmer, and you think it might be OK to go in the water – don’t!
“If you get stuck in a rip, there’s no one going to be able to save you. So if in doubt, don’t go out.”
What makes rips particularly dangerous is at first glance, many of them look like seemingly calm, darker patches of water.
Many people arrive at the beach and assume the darker, greener areas are the safest place to swim because there are no waves breaking there.
But the reality is that breaking waves and whitewater mean that it’s shallower and that whitewater is moving water onshore. Those darker, green gaps between the whitewater mean it’s deeper and could be rip currents that take you out to sea. One way to remember it is using the saying: white is nice, green is mean.
“The sad thing about rip currents,” says Prof. Brander, “is they are potentially avoidable. But on average, 25 to 30 people tragically drown every year in Australia each year after being caught in rips. That’s more on average than the number of fatalities per year caused by cyclones, bushfires, floods and sharks combined. Rip currents are a big deal.
“The simple fact is, if you don’t get in a rip current, you won’t drown in one.”
Here are the three different kinds of rip currents.
Channelised rips can be in the same place for days, weeks and even months, and are the easiest to spot. Generally, you don’t just get one channelised rip as they occur along the beach at varying intervals.
Boundary rips can be almost permanent, in fact, we often give them names – such as the ‘Backpacker Express’ at Bondi in Sydney or the nearby ‘Bronte Express’. Surfers use boundary rips to get quickly out beyond the breakers, but swimmers can easily get into trouble if they get caught in them by swimming too close to the rocks.
“Some boundary rips are great for surfers who get a free ride out the back to catch waves, but they’re not good for swimmers, who may be fooled by the calmer looking waters,” Prof. Brander says.
“In terms of safety on the beach, you really don’t want to be swimming anywhere near rocks, headlands, or structures.”
They’re also common, but occur quickly and don’t last long, which makes them hard to spot. Here’s some examples from Coogee Beach in Sydney and City Beach in Perth.
Prof. Brander says flash rips are caused by some random large waves, or a set of larger waves, that break, which makes them impossible to predict and very difficult to study.
“Every now and then particularly when the waves are messy, you get a couple of big waves break, the water piles up and it pushes a rip current out called a flash rip. You’ll see the turbulent whitewater, you’ll see clouds of sand going out to sea and if anyone’s in that region, they can easily be caught and taken offshore.
“A flash rip may only last for a minute or so and then it disappears. But others can quickly develop elsewhere along the beach. They’re very difficult to spot because they form quickly and don’t last very long. So it’s something you should be aware of, and also remember they can also often form off the back of sandbars.”
Once you’re in water over your waist, the danger of being taken by a rip rises dramatically. You should always make sure your feet are firmly on the sand, particularly if you are not a good swimmer.
If you do find yourself caught in a rip, there are a few key things you should do, says Prof. Brander.
There’s a saying that ‘Rips don’t drown people, people drown in rips’. The main reason for that is many people panic when they realise they are caught in a rip. Panic is the real danger.
“You really don’t need to panic because rips are just taking you for a ride,” Prof. Brander says.
“Rips don’t pull you under the water. That’s a myth – there’s no such thing as an undertow. They don’t take you across the ocean and they aren’t taking you into shark-infested waters. They’re just taking you for a ride and there’s a good chance they might re-circulate back into shallower water.”
For most people when they get caught in a rip, their first instinct is to swim back to the safety of the beach.
“But that means you’re swimming against the rip, which is flowing very fast and probably faster than most people can swim,” Prof. Brander says.
“Swimming against the rip will just tire you out and lead to panic.”
“They don’t take you across the ocean and they aren’t taking you into shark-infested waters. They’re just taking you for a ride.”
The best thing to do when caught in a rip current is to float.
“If you relax and float, by treading water, or even lying on your back, you’re conserving your energy,” Prof. Brander says.
“Eventually the rip will stop flowing, usually just beyond the breaking waves and often rips can re-circulate you around back into shallower water.”
The traditional advice has always been to swim parallel to the beach to escape a rip, but that only applies to strong swimmers and is complicated by the fact that not all rips flow straight offshore. It’s always better to float.
So you’re not panicking, you’re not swimming against the rip back to the beach and you’re floating. The next thing to do is to signal for help. Are there lifeguards, lifesavers, or surfers nearby? It’s time to raise your arm and wave it, or call out for help.
“Surfers do a lot of rescues and they have a nice surfboard you can hold onto. So if you’re in trouble in a rip and there’s no lifeguards or lifesavers around, look for surfers and get their attention.”
If you are caught in a rip and there’s nobody else around to help, then you have a big problem.
“As harsh as it sounds, you really shouldn’t have gone in the water in the first place,” says Prof. Brander.
In these cases, he says, the best thing to do is to float and stay calm, even if the rip has taken you out behind the breakers. There’s a good chance that someone will eventually see you.
“The other option is to swim along the beach a fair way and then back into shore. Look for areas where there are lots of waves breaking and aim for that.
“But that’s only if you are a strong swimmer, because it’s going to involve a long and hard swim.”
It really does come down to ‘If in doubt, don’t go out’.
If in doubt, don’t go out (unsw.edu.au) thanks to Dr Rip.
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