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Strong Currents a Constant Issue at New Jersey Beaches

Know what a rip current is and what to do when you experience it.

Summertime means vacations and suntans. But it also means rip currents and a constant need to be alert on the beach.

New Jersey beach goers know what a rip current is. Most of us have experienced one at one time or another.  Having  the right information when you enter the water can save your life. Anyone who intends on swimming in the ocean this summer needs to know the facts about rip currents.

 To put it bluntly a rip current is the strong water flow that can surge out past the sand bars. Rip currents flow in between the break of a sand bar as a wave is being pulled back to sea.

As a wave is coming onto the beach the wind and water are pushing the water sideways. Think about when you watch a wave in its last moments. Once the water flows onto the beach the water moves side to side as it recedes. The water moves back to the sea in a pulling motion.

Under normal circumstances the effect is known as an undertow. On some days the undertow is actually quite strong and can knock you down if you're not careful. Rip currents are far more dangerous and can happen on any beach and even on some larger lakes. They can also move "spots" in some cases as the current moves up and down the beach. A sand bar is not permanent and breaks in the wall of sand happen frequently. 

Rip currents occur in an area with a break in the sand bar. The "hole" in the sand bar allows the water to rush back out to sea, causing a strong current of water surging through the hole in between sand bars.

To picture a rip current you must think about when you first enter the water. As you make it out past the waves you drop down a few feet. As a swimmer you are in a trough, an area in between the beach and the next wave. As you walk or swim out further the waves crash until you make it out past the "breakers." Those breakers are sand bars. As you continue out to deeper water you will notice the pulling sensation decrease once you are over the sand bar.

The area in between the beach and the sand bar is where a rip current can happen. As water is being pulled back out to sea the sand bar breaks some of the motion. If the sand bar is missing a section of sand the water can surge through the open area.

In Island Beach State Park and Seaside Heights the conditions for rip currents are always present. Any area with rough surf conditions or windy days can produce a rip current. The major issue with rip currents is not to avoid them, but to know what to do when you get caught in one. The Island Beach State Park website (www.islandbeachnj.org/Recreation/swimming.html) has an illustration everyone should read before heading out on your next beach day.

According to the website they offer some key advice when caught in a rip current. You should never fight the current. No matter how good a swimmer you think you are fighting the current will only tire you out faster. Every year the Atlantic Ocean moves tons of sand back and forth across the beach front. Anyone who has been in a rip current knows it's useless to fight the current.

After you realize you are in a rip current you should immediately swim "out" of the current. If you feel the water pulling you out to sea try to swim to the left or to the right, out of the currents path. This brings you out of the current allowing you to surface. Remember, the current is strongest at the surface so stay alert as you come up for air.

The third step to remember if you get caught in a rip current is to float or tread water if you cannot swim out of the current. If all efforts to swim out of the strong current fail you must either tread water in place or allow yourself to float to the surface. In this scenario you will pop up once the rip current slows down. This is the perfect time to remain at the surface and signal for a lifeguard.

Lifeguards are trained to spot swimmers waving or signaling at the surface. Waving your arm from side to side will alert them of your situation and they will assist you. The best thing to do when swimming is always use a buddy system. Always have at least one person with you when you swim. When in doubt … don’t go out.

All of these steps can be easily accessed from the website listed above or by logging onto www.ripcurrents.noaa.org. The NOAA website offers extended information about how to "break the grip of the rip" as they say on their brochures. For more information about rip currents you can always ask the lifeguard on duty the next time you head out to the beach.

Knowing the information about rip currents and swimming safety are must know info for the summertime.

Diane Clayton June 12, 2011 at 05:33 PM
JR, I have lived here all my life and have never heard or read such a clear and informative description of what a rip current actually is. Reprints of your article should be handed out to beachgoers all along the NJ Shore. Great work! The pic is fantastic, too.
. June 12, 2011 at 07:29 PM
A warning about swimming with no lifeguard on duty should also be handed out. If people would read them, we may have fewer drownings this summer.
J. R. Warnet June 12, 2011 at 09:36 PM
Diane, thank you for your comment!

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