Swimming in Lake Superior is not for the faint of heart. It is....invigorating, and a few days every summer it's even tolerable. The next time you hang out at Park Point in Duluth (largest freshwater sandbar on Earth!) or take a dip elsewhere on Lake Superior, or swim in the ocean, keep an eye out for rip currents. In recent days 11 Americans have lost their lives drowning in rip currents in coastal Alabama and Florida - in many cases going into the water in spite of ample warning.
As a meteorologist I was shocked to discover that in the last decade, rip currents have claimed more American lives than tornadoes and hurricanes. They are the third leading cause of death, behind excessive heat and flooding, according to NOAA.
So what is a "rip current" anyway. According to the National Ocean Service, a rip current is a narrow channel of powerful, fast-moving water that occurs along the shoreline of a large body of water (mostly the oceans and Great Lakes). These currents can reach up to 6 mph, suddenly sweeping swimmers away from the beach. Swimming against a rip current is futile, people thrash, tire and then often drown. In fact NOAA statistics show an average of 100+ drowning from rip currents during an average year.
So what do you do if you feel yourself being pulled away from shore? NOAA has advice on how to survive a rip current:
- Relax. Rip currents don't pull you under.
- A rip current is a natural treadmill that travels an average speed of 1-2 feet per second, but has been measured as fast as 8 feet per second - faster than an Olympic swimmer. Trying to swim against a rip current will only use up your energy, energy you need to survive and escape the rip current.
- Do NOT try to swim directly into the shore. Swim along the shoreline until you escape the current's pull. Wen free from the pull of the current, swim at an angle away from the current toward shore.
If you feel you can't reach shore, relax, face the shore, and call or wave for help. Remember: if in doubt, don't go out!
According to Cleveland.com the Great Lakes average 10 rip current fatalities per year, mostly on beaches with shoreline structures, such as board walks. Kids are especially vulnerable, and the statistic above is a blunt reminder of drowning risk. Rip currents increase the potential of getting into trouble.
Primetime summertime has arrived, and the next time you brave the brisk waters of Superior (or any large body of water) make sure it's safe to swim. If you do feel an alarming tug in the currents pulling you into deeper water, stay calm, and remember to swim perpendicular to shore until you break free of the rip current.
When I was 5 years old I was caught in an Atlantic rip current in Wildwood, New Jersey. I was saved by a life guard who saw that I was in trouble. So yeah, this one hits close to home.
Have fun - be careful out there!