By Vincent Pica
Commodore, First District, Southern Region (D1SR)
United States Coast Guard Auxiliary
We’re repeating (and updating) the column about rip tides, rip currents and undertows – which are what distant storms often leave us. Lest one of us comes to grief…
I’ve written often about hurricanes, great and small. Of note, forecasters predict a 70 percent likelihood of 9 to 15 named storms (winds of 39 mph or higher), of which 4 to 8 could become hurricanes (winds of 74 mph or higher), including 2 to 4 major hurricanes (Category 3, 4 or 5; winds of 111 mph or higher) for this season. An average season produces 12 named storms of which six become hurricanes, including three major hurricanes.
The 2017 Atlantic hurricane season was a hyperactive and catastrophic hurricane season. With a damage total of at least $282.16 billion (USD), it was the costliest season on record, surpassing the previous record holder, the 2005 season. More than 99.7 percent of the season’s damage was due to three of the season’s major hurricanes – Harvey, Maria, and Irma. Another substantial hurricane, Nate, was the worst natural disaster in Costa Rican history. Harvey, Irma, Maria, and Nate had their names retired due to their high damage costs and loss of life. Featuring 17 named storms, 10 hurricanes and 6 major hurricanes, the 2017 season ranks alongside 1936 as the fifth-most active season since records began in 1851.
The 2017 season is also one of only six years on record to feature multiple Category 5 hurricanes, and only the second after 2007 to feature two hurricanes making landfall at that intensity.
Undertow v Rip Tide v Rip Currents
Anybody that has ever been to a beach understands undertow. It is the backwash as gravity returns a breaking wave to the sea. All but small children can stand against it – and its effect ends at the leading edge of the next breaking wave. While it might knock you down and thus “suck” you under, it won’t pull you out to sea. Our mothers didn’t know that because they confused undertow with rip tides and rip currents.
A rip tide is the result of tides and the egress and ingress of large volumes of water flowing through inlets, estuaries, and bays. As facts would have it, most people don’t swim near inlets or where bays meet the sea. They swim near beaches, where sand bars often form, and where rip currents, “the killer current,” form in concert.
The Anatomy of a Rip Current
Rip currents are by far the biggest killers of ocean swimmers. Rip currents form as waves disperse along the beach causing water to become trapped between the beach and a sandbar or other underwater feature. This water becomes the “feeder” that creates the deadly force of the rip current. The water converges into a narrow, river-like channel moving away from the shore at high speed.
Marine scientists define a rip current as having a “neck” (the river-like channel moving away from the shore) and a “head” that is often defined by an unusual disturbance or choppiness in the water and by murky discoloration caused by sand and debris. As the water, and swimmer, reaches the “head,” the velocity and strength of the rip current circulation begins to weaken considerably.
Can I See a Rip Current?
Often, yes. As a result of the current’s speed, sand is forced into suspension often causing a rip current to be associated with “dirty” water. It is characterized by a strong, localized current flowing seaward from the shore; visible as an agitated band of water, which is the return movement of water piled up on the shore by incoming waves.
Most Importantly, Can I Get Out of the Grip of a Rip Current? If you don’t panic, and play the water’s power to your advantage, yes. Don’t try to swim back to shore against the rip current that is dragging you out. Most likely, you will tire beyond recovery and drowning, flatly put, will follow as surely as night follows day. Swim with and across the rip current. Let it give you some speed – as you “exit – stage left!” Or right – but get out of the grip of the current and into “normal” water. Then, deal with the hand you’ve been dealt – swim back, or just tread water while waving your arms for help, or just float and rest. This is why swimming with a “buddy system” is so critical.
If you are interested in being part of the USCG Forces, email me at Vincent.Pica@cgauxnet.us or go direct to the D1SR Human Resources department, who are in charge of new members matters, at d1south.org/StaffPages/DSO-HR.php and we will help you “get in this thing.” ■
Captain Kevin Reed is the Captain of the Port and Sector Commander for U.S. Coast Guard Sector Long Island Sound. CAPT Reed is responsible for all active-duty, reservist and auxiliary Coast Guard personnel within the Sector. As a Commodore of the U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary First District, Southern Region, Vin Pica works closely with CAPT Reed and his staff to promote boating safety in the waters between Connecticut, Long Island and 200 nautical miles offshore. Sector Long Island Sound Command Center can be reached 24 hours a day at 203-468-4401.