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A view of a rip current heading out from a beach.

A rip current has a different wave pattern than the rest of the beach.

Rip current education continues

From eNews, July 6, 2006

Instead of, "How's the water?" beachgoers on Park Point may be asked a few different questions this summer: "How often have you visited a beach on Minnesota Point in the past five years?" and "Have you seen the signs along the beach that show how to get out of a rip current?"

These questions are part of a short survey by the Minnesota Sea Grant program at the University of Minnesota, Duluth, (UMD) and the City of Duluth designed to understand people's perceptions about rip currents and refine local educational efforts. UMD environmental studies student Kelsey Paxson will conduct the survey during his internship with Minnesota Sea Grant this summer.

Nationally, rip currents account for more than 100 deaths a year, more than for tornadoes, hurricanes, or lightning. It's estimated that 80 percent of surf rescues involve rip currents. And don't call them rip tides--that's a misnomer, along with undertow. Rip tides are caused by tidal currents, which don't occur on the Great Lakes. Undertows take people under, whereas rip currents carry people away from shore. Panicked swimmers who try to swim straight back to shore against the current, put themselves at risk of drowning because of fatigue.

Rip currents result when water rushes offshore in a narrow channel. These currents can extend 1,000 feet, reach 100 feet in width, and travel up to 5 mph. This is slower than you can run, but faster than you or even an Olympic swimmer can swim. They are most prevalent after storms.

In summer 2003, Lake Superior swimmers got a deadly lesson in rip currents when a young man, Matthew Rheaume, drowned in a rip current off Park Point in Duluth. "That was really a wake-up call for many people," says Jesse Schomberg, coastal communities educator for Minnesota Sea Grant. "Before then, we didn't think rip currents happened around here."

In addition to the survey, Sea Grant will also sponsor a "Shorelink" interpreter to inform tourists about rip currents as part of a series of roving naturalist programs in Duluth and the North Shore. "Sugarloaf: The North Shore Stewardship Association" organizes the Shorelink program. Sea Grant is part of a network of 30 Sea Grant College Programs spanning coastal states throughout the United States and Puerto Rico.

Recognize a rip current:

* Murky water from sediments stirred up by the current.

* Different waves--larger and choppier.

* Foam or objects that move steadily offshore.

Survive a rip current:

* Don't fight the current.

* Swim parallel to the shore to get out of the current.

* Rip currents are rarely more than 30 feet wide.

* If you can't escape, float calmly until the current dissipates then swim diagonally back to the shore.

For those who take their swimming class skills to the beach, the Duluth Parks and Recreation Department is posting rip current education signs at all city pools. They are also distributing rip current brochures at neighborhood sites and training lifeguards in rip current rescue techniques.

"Nobody should be afraid to go to the beach," says Schomberg. "We want people to have a good time, but be informed about rip currents. Swimming on guarded beaches and knowing how to escape a rip current can be life-saving. If caught in a rip current, don't fight it. Swim parallel to the shore until you're out of the current, then swim back to shore at an angle."

Schomberg described a rip current as having a different wave pattern than the rest of the beach. Other signs are foam or debris moving away from shore and a plume of dirty or muddy water. (See side bar.)

To find out more about rip currents, visit Minnesota Sea Grant or order the free "Break the Grip of the Rip" brochure at 218-726-6191.