Escaping rip currents not as simple as it sounds

Surf swimmers should stick to lifeguard beaches, the National Weather Service advises.

Think you know how to handle getting caught in a rip current? Not so fast.

The conventional wisdom that swimmers should try to swim to the side, essentially parallel to the shore as the current pulls them out, might not be the best method, at least one researcher has controversially claimed. They should ride out the current: most times it curls back in, said oceanographer Jamie MacMahan, now at the Naval Postgraduate School.

The problem is, the currents don’t always curl back directly.

Plus, “to try to get the general public to do it, when they’re panicking anyway, that doesn’t compute,” said Nikke Bowie, Charleston Park and Recreation Commission safety program manager.

The commission’s beach lifeguards still are taught the protocol of the U.S. Lifesaving Association: work sideways out of the current, she said. But they’re also told about the curling back-in phenomenon. It’s a situational judgment, depending on the strength of the rip, the swimmer and the person being rescued.

In fact, newer editions of the National Weather Service’s rip current educational poster include the curl as a secondary escape route.

Rip currents are undertows that develop when retreating breaker wash forms a swift channel. Abrupt and powerful, they can pull a swimmer far from the shore. They drown more than 100 people in the United States each year, according to the association.

The most important thing is to watch out for them. The Weather Service stresses deterrence first, said spokeswoman Susan Buchanan.

“The advice starts with, always swim at a lifeguard-protected beach,” she said.