Q&A: Rip currents at the Jersey Shore
When in doubt, don't go out!
Following a record-setting eight fatalities along the Jersey Shore in 2017 caused by dangerous rip currents, there's an aggressive campaign by the New Jersey Sea Grant Consortium to hopefully keep the casualty count at zero this season.
A key part of that mission is educating the public about water safety. Because Mother Nature will do what she wants, when she wants, being able to recognize the signs of danger, or escape a treacherous situation, can mean the difference between life and death.
What are rip currents?
Rips are powerful currents of water moving away from the shore. They can move faster than an Olympic swimmer, and can sweep even the strongest swimmers out to sea.
According to the the United States Lifesaving Association, rip currents account for more than 80 percent of rescues by surf beach lifeguards.
How do they form and how can I spot them?
While permanent rip currents can form along jetties, groins and piers, the location varies for the rips most responsible for dragging swimmers into deeper waters.
Caused typically by gaps in sandbars, rip currents occur when the water transported to the shoreline builds up enough pressure and flows back out to sea.
Dr. Jon Miller, director of the ocean engineering program at Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, said a series of nor'easters this winter moved a decent amount of sand from the beaches out into the ocean as sandbars, and the sand will eventually make its way back to the beach with milder weather.
"Generally speaking, sandbars come back onto the beach fully anywhere from June to July, and that's when we see our maximum beach widths," Miller said. But the threat of rips remains.
Lifeguards typically know the hot spots in their area, but you may be able to keep yourself out of a dangerous situation by identifying areas where waves aren't breaking.
You can also look for an area of unusual choppiness or discoloration. With a good eye, you can probably spot strong currents moving away from shore.
What should I do if caught in a rip current?
It may be easier said than done, but don't panic and don't fight the current. Staying calm will help you conserve energy and stay above water.
Swimmers are advised to swim parallel to the shore, out of the current. Being in the grip of a rip current is like running on a treadmill you can't turn off — you want to step off to the side.
When out of the current, swim at an angle away from the current and towards shore.
Lifeguards should be keeping a close eye on the water as well. Don't swim off an unguarded beach.