Rip currents can turn a beach trip deadly

Published 7:00 am Saturday, August 11, 2018

By Skip Rigney 

Probably you or someone you know has enjoyed the beaches of Alabama and the Florida Panhandle. Sugary white sand and crystal clear water have been drawing people from all over the South and Midwest to towns such as Gulf Shores and Pensacola Beach for decades.

As relaxing as it is to spend a few days on this beautiful coastline, everyone who visits the oceanfront needs to be aware of a potentially deadly hazard that occasionally lurks in those gorgeous waters.

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The danger of rip currents has been made tragically apparent over the past couple of weeks as two people drowned on Dauphin Island, Alabama and two more at Destin, Florida.

There have been nine rip current-related fatalities this year from Dauphin Island to Destin, which is the most in 14 years according to statistics released on Monday by the National Weather Service Office in Mobile. Since 1996 there have been 110 rip current-related drownings along that stretch of beach. For perspective, that is nearly four times more than the 28 deaths caused by lightning in the same 22-year period in southeast Alabama, northwest Florida, and a portion of inland southeast Mississippi served by NWS-Mobile.

The Destin Beach Safety rescue group reported on Saturday, August 4th, that during the previous two days they completed 126 rescues. On both days red warning flags flew over Destin’s seven miles of beaches indicating a high risk of strong rip currents.

Rip currents are powerful currents jetting seaward from the beach. They are generally from 10 to 200 feet wide, and the strong current may end just beyond the surf line or extend as far as 200 yards offshore. They’re so strong that even the best swimmers can be carried seaward. When swell, wave, wind, and bottom depth conditions are conducive, multiple rip currents can form along the coastline. We usually don’t have rip currents along Mississippi’s Highway 90 beach. That’s because offshore barrier islands such as Ship and Horn Islands break the Gulf’s incoming swell, keeping the waves in Mississippi Sound relatively low. If you have plans to visit the Alabama and Florida Panhandle beaches, check the Rip Current Risk posted on the NWS-Mobile website,

Once you’re at the beach check for green, yellow, or red flags, which indicate rip current risk. If you see a red flag, stay out of the water. (A purple flag means that dangerous marine life such as jellyfish may present a hazard to swimmers.)

Sometimes beachgoers reason that they can get in the water if they can find a section of beach where there is less surf, and the water is relatively quiet compared to adjacent areas of breaking surf. This is exactly the wrong strategy. Such a quiet area might actually indicate the presence of a rip current.

According to NOAA’s Rip Current Safety program, “If caught in a rip current, swim sideways. Not a skilled swimmer? Flip onto your back & float. If you can, wave & yell to get the attention of lifeguards and people on shore to let them know you need help.” And, if you see someone in trouble in a rip current, “Do not go in after them. Instead – call for help. Lifeguard not available? Throw them something that floats, but do NOT try to make the rescue yourself.”