San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Beach Safety: Beware of Rip Currents

RIP currents – more commonly knownas rip tides or undertows – are among themost dangerous and ubiquitous membersof Costa Rica’s beach communities.Many issues contribute to ocean-relateddeaths. Unpredictable, uncontrollablefactors can produce dangerous situations inthe water, as the devastating tsunami inAsia proved not long ago. Misinformationabout the risks associated with swimmingand not knowing how to swim contributeto the problem. Many beaches have nosigns posted warning swimmers aboutpotential dangers, because residents tearthem down and businesses don’t wantthem for fear of driving off customers.Alcohol consumption also plays a role.Finally, more than 80% of Costa Rica’sbeaches have no lifeguard system, andthose that do are extremely understaffed.But the root of most beach tragedies inthe country is rip currents.Before entering the ocean in CostaRica (or anywhere), it is necessary tohave a basic understanding of rip currents.Drowning is the second leadingcause of accidental death in Costa Rica.Available statistics indicate that 150-200people drown every year in Costa Rica’swaters; 90% of these cases occur on just30 of Costa Rica’s 600-some beaches. Ofthose who drown, more than four out ofevery five were caught in rip currents.With a little understanding of how thecurrents work, however, you can safelyenjoy the ocean.What Is a Rip Current?This phenomenon is most often calleda rip tide or undertow; however, these aremisnomers. The flow of rip currents has littleto do with the tide and it does not suckyou under; it sucks you out.Rip currents form when there is aninflux of water brought to the shore bywaves. The accumulated water then seeksor creates a channel back to the sea in thearea with the least resistance, usuallybetween sand bars or at the deepest part ofthe ocean floor. This forms a current thatacts like a swift river flowing away fromshore at up to seven miles per hour – fasterthan an Olympic swimmer.A rip current consists of three parts: thefeeder current, the neck and the head. Thefeeder current runs parallel to the beach andis the source of the outgoing water. Togauge if you’re in a feeder current, you needto note landmark beach locations to keeporiented. If you thought you were stationaryand suddenly find yourself 100 feet downshore, you could be in a feeder current.At the beginning of the channel back tosea starts the neck, which can be in wateras shallow as your knees. If you feel thecurrent pulling you out and you can touchbottom, walk parallel to the beach, jumpingforward with each wave. If the surf isrough, turn sideways as the waves come inso as not to lose balance. Keep movinguntil you’re out of the current.If you can’t touch bottom, make sureyou can float by arching your back, tiltingyour head back and pointing your nose inthe air. Then, without panicking, let theneck pull you out to the head, which iswhere the current dissipates. This is generallyjust beyond the breakers.Once out in more tranquil waters, swimcalmly back to shore at a 45-degree anglearound the neck to avoid being pulled backinto the same current. Then you can ridethe waves in. The key is to remain calm.Whatever you do, do not attempt to swimagainst the current. This will only tireyou and cause more panic, which lowersyour chances of getting out easily.This advice may sound simple and easyto follow, but in reality it is not. These arepowerful, panic-inducing currents; whencaught in one, thinking clearly and actingswiftly can be difficult. However, if youfamiliarize yourself with the proceduresand understand how the currents work,reactions and instinct can take over, andyou’ll be better able to get out safely.Spotting a Rip CurrentRip currents may look like muddyrivers flowing away from the shore. If theocean is rough with surf, foam may be presentalong the neck and head. Anotherwarning sign is an area where waves don’tbreak but that is surrounded by breakingwaves. Near hard, white-sand beaches, thecurrents may be harder to see. Always bewary when near a river estuary.Agood test is to throw a buoyant objectinto the water and see where the currenttakes it. And, as always, it’s a good idea toask residents about the dangers of thebeaches in their area. Remember, somebeaches are frequented by surfers becausethe rip currents help them get out to thebreakers; seeing people in the water doesn’tnecessarily mean the beach is safe.Types of Rip CurrentsFour main types of rip currents exist. Atype-one or fixed rip is usually found nearmanmade structures where the watermoves around and the wave pattern isaltered. These usually are in one set locationand are strongly influenced by surfconditions. Look for them also at the cuspbetween two points on a beach.Atype-two or flash rip is a short-duration,unpredictable current influenced bysurf conditions.A type-three or permanent rip isfocused around structures or river estuaries.A type-four or traveling rip is formedon long, open beaches and travels with theprevailing wave direction.These currents can be aided by the tide.According to the daily La Nación, “whenthe tide moves from high to low, it is saidthat ‘the sea is emptying,’ and this is whenrip tides are most dangerous because thetide pushes the waves in. If the tide is lowering(the sea is filling up) the rip currentsare weaker because the sea is movinginward and that reduces the waves’ force.”Rip currents are most powerful threehours before high tide. Lifeguards in thecountry recommend waiting an hour beforeand after high tide to let the currents calm abit. Tide information can be found in newspapersand through residents. Ask around.Keep this information in mind beforegoing for a swim or hitting the waves inCosta Rica. Knowing how to recognizeand handle these currents can make yourstay safer and more enjoyable.In memory of Greg Schrieber (1979-2002).

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