Surge in rip current deaths prompts calls for better beach protection

·6 min read

Each new story of a drowning death in a beachfront rip current is a fresh blow to Suzi Merical.

“I just can't tell you the feeling I get in my stomach,” said Merical, a Wake Forest, North Carolina, mother who lost her only child to a rip current on an unguarded beach in April 2019. “It brings back all the pain and misery.”

Last year, these rip currents – invisible to the untrained eye – claimed more lives than the National Weather Service has reported since it started tracking the deaths in 2010. At least 98 people died, 24 more than in 2020.

Together with waves and high surf, surf zone fatalities last year were the third-leading cause of weather-related deaths, behind heat and flooding.

Rip currents are easily identifiable in this aerial photograph taken near The Boardwalk on Florida's Okaloosa Island. Rip currents form swift and strong streams of water that can carry swimmers away.
Rip currents are easily identifiable in this aerial photograph taken near The Boardwalk on Florida's Okaloosa Island. Rip currents form swift and strong streams of water that can carry swimmers away.

Dave Benjamin, co-founder of the Great Lakes Surf Rescue Project, called beach drownings a "neglected public-health issue" that's entirely preventable. He is one of a host of beach safety advocates campaigning for more public education, better signs, flotation devices and more properly trained lifeguards.

They point to informational campaigns that reduced lightning deaths from an average of about 60 in 2000 to 11 last year, and they hope for similar success.

This year, 35 rip current deaths have been reported through the end of July, fewer than the 61 over the same time period last year.

It isn't known why rip current deaths increased the past two years, said Chris Brewster, chair of the United States Lifesaving Association's certification committee. It could be an increase in swimmers as people fled pandemic confinement, he said, or heat waves sending more people to the beach to cool off.

The exact number of rip current deaths isn't always known, he added. The weather service gathers information from local officials and media reports, but reporting requirements vary by state and delayed deaths aren't always reported as a drowning.

John and Suzi Merical's daughter Paige, 17, was visiting Emerald Isle, North Carolina, with a friend during spring break 2019. The teens were knocked off their feet by a rip current in knee-deep water at a beach where lifeguard season hadn't started. A bystander used the girl’s phone to call her parents as responders administered first aid.

Paige died a week later. The body of her friend, 18-year-old Ian Lewis, was recovered after a more than 48-hour search.

Could rip currents become more likely?

Rip currents are strong streams of water that form where waves break near shore and pile up water that rushes back to sea. Usually perpendicular to the beach, the currents may dig grooves into the sand or form at breaks in sandbars.

They can be generated by strong onshore winds and swells from distant passing hurricanes, said Rob Brander, a beach safety expert at the University of New South Wales in Sydney. If climate change causes any of these conditions to become more frequent in an area, Brander said rip currents could become more likely.

Beach safety groups say beachfront towns around the world beckon visitors with glossy images of rolling blue waves and ivory sandcastles but never mention the danger that lurks in the surf.

Beachgoers often flee the water at the first sign of anything that looks like a fin, but there were twice as many rip current deaths in the U.S. as shark bites last year.

Most people can’t easily identify the currents, Brewster said. From their elevated position, trained lifeguards can spot the currents and steer people away. But deaths typically occur  on beaches without lifeguards, another fact unlikely to show up in vacation destination ads, he said.

“Tourists generally assume that if you're going to a tourism community, that it’s going to be reasonably, safely taken care of,” Brewster said. “Just because they advertise a beautiful beach doesn’t mean there’s any lifeguard protection there at all.”

In July, a jury in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, found the city's private beach contractor negligent when Zerihun Wolde, a 41-year-old father, died in a rip current in August 2018.

Attorney Mullins McLeod, who represented Wolde's family, said evidence showed that lifeguards weren't properly trained and that no red flags were posted that day, despite a National Weather Service rip current advisory.

Myrtle Beach, which attracts 15 million visitors a year, contracts with Lack's Beach Service for lifeguards, but McLeod said the lifeguards also handle beach chair and umbrella rentals on a commission basis.

“They have led the community and visitors to believe the lifeguards are trained and qualified and performing their job within industry standards," McLeod said.

The U.S. Lifesaving Association revoked the company's certification in 2008, and it has not been reinstated. Brewster said lifeguards should have only one duty: beach surveillance.

Two people have drowned this summer in Myrtle Beach.

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A Volusia County Beach Safety Ocean Rescue lifeguard keeps watch on swimmers on Sept. 28, 2021.
A Volusia County Beach Safety Ocean Rescue lifeguard keeps watch on swimmers on Sept. 28, 2021.

Lifeguards improve survival odds

No statistics are readily available for how many rip current deaths occur  on beaches with properly trained lifeguards, but Brewster said the odds are 18 million to 1.

In Volusia County, Florida, home of Daytona Beach, the county’s Beach Safety Ocean Rescue lifeguards rescued hundreds from hazardous conditions on weekends this summer. Of the four drownings this year, three were after lifeguards left for the evening, and the other was in an unguarded area.

Benjamin took beach safety to heart after nearly drowning while surfing alone in Lake Michigan the day after Christmas 2010. Thrown from his board, despite being a veteran surfer and strong swimmer, he did the one thing you’re not supposed to do: He panicked.

“Fight to survive is your instinct,” he said. But it’s not how you actually survive in a current. When he quit struggling and gave up, he popped to the surface and was able to float and backstroke his way to safety.

He and the Mericals share a simple slogan when talking to others: Flip and float.

The lifesaving association advises trying to swim parallel to shore to get out of a rip current, but swimmers who find themselves tiring or panicking should just float, Brewster said. Sometimes, the currents circle back toward shore, and if you’re swimming near a lifeguard, chances are you’ll be seen and rescued.

How to stay safe at the beach: 

  • Always swim in a lifeguard-protected area.

  • Check conditions before entering the water.

  • Learn to identify rip currents.

  • Ask hotels and rental companies where to find the closest lifeguard-protected beach.

If you’re caught in a rip current: 

  • Relax; rip currents don’t pull you under.

  • Swim parallel to the beach and not against the current.

  • You can float or tread water until you escape the current or are rescued.

  • Draw attention to yourself by yelling and waving.

How to help someone else:

  • Call a lifeguard.

  • Dial 911.

  • Throw the person something that floats.

  • Don’t enter the water without a floatation device.

Learn more: See how to spot a rip current at the beach

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Surge in rip current deaths prompts calls for better beach protection