U.S. Army Medical Research and Materiel Command
Fort Detrick, Maryland
My favorite memories from childhood are of our family vacations to Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. We made the trip every year from Kentucky to enjoy a week filled with coastal luxuries like breezy ocean winds and the feeling of sand between our toes. I loved the ocean and was avid swimmer who enjoyed success as a member of my local swim team. One day, however, my overconfidence in the ocean almost cost me my life.
In the summer of 1995, I was 15 years old and lacked a fear of things more powerful than me. We traveled to Myrtle Beach and, after the long drive, I hopped out of the car and sprinted straight toward the ocean. I was coaxed out of the water for dinner, but was eager to return the next day.
I woke up early the following morning and headed to the beach with my father. We decided to do some boogie-boarding and wave-riding. He was also a great swimmer and taught me how to swim when I was very young. We were the fish of the family. We spent hours in the ocean that day before we got tired and decided to lie back and float on the waves, relaxing with the momentum of the current.
I don’t recall how long we floated there, but when I finally raised my head to look around, I quickly realized we were in trouble. I looked toward the beach, where the sunbathers looked like ants and the beachfront hotels seemed distant on the horizon. I yelled at my father, who was floating nearby, and pointed toward the beach. I could see the fear in his eyes, despite his efforts to hide it for my sake. He immediately yelled, “Swim!” and we frantically began paddling toward the shore.
I didn’t even raise my head to check my progress for the first five minutes. I swam as hard as I could, but I could not keep up with my father. He picked me up and tossed me ahead of him and I swam until he caught up to me again. We kept this up for several more minutes until we were exhausted and gasping for breath. To our horror, the shore was still far ahead in the distance.
We both knew that to make it to shore we would have to swim with the current in a diagonal direction. We kept swimming and fell into a rhythm with the tide. Although time was hard to estimate, I’m sure more than an hour passed before we collapsed on the shore. We landed miles away from the point where we entered the water.
We had to take a taxi back to our hotel to find the rest of the family and let them know we were all right. My mother, helped by three lifeguards, had been frantically scouring the beach for us. The feeling of reuniting with loved ones after such a big scare is hard to describe. Exhaustion and emotion overcame us, and my father and I collapsed into the arms of our family members.
The lifeguards informed us that the rip currents were especially strong that day. A red warning flag had been displayed to indicate the water conditions were hazardous. I didn’t notice the flag. I was so overconfident in my swimming ability that I didn’t stop to consider the unrelenting power of the sea. I have since returned to the ocean several times. Now, however, I approach it with respect and a healthy fear of the danger behind its mighty power.Avoid and Survive Rip Currents
Rip currents are particularly dangerous for weak or non-swimmers and can even sweep the strongest swimmer out to sea. The following tips will help keep you from becoming a victim to a rip current.When at the beach
• Whenever possible, swim at a lifeguard-protected beach.
• Never swim alone.
• Learn how to swim in the surf. It's not the same as swimming in a pool or lake.
• Be cautious at all times, especially when swimming at unguarded beaches. If in doubt, don’t go out!
• Obey all instructions and orders from lifeguards. Lifeguards are trained to identify potential hazards. Ask a lifeguard about the conditions before entering the water. This is part of their job.
• Stay at least 100 feet away from piers and jetties. Permanent rip currents often exist alongside these structures.
• Consider using polarized sunglasses when at the beach. They will help you to spot signs of a rip current by cutting down glare and reflected sunlight off the ocean’s surface.
• Pay especially close attention to children and the elderly when at the beach. Even in shallow water, you can lose your footing.If caught in a rip current
• Remain calm to conserve energy and think clearly.
• Never fight the current.
• Think of it like a treadmill that you cannot turn off and you need to step to the side.
• Swim out of the current in a direction following the shoreline. When out of the current, swim at an angle — away from the current — toward shore.
• If you are unable to swim out of the rip current, float or calmly tread water. When out of the current, swim toward shore.
• If you are still unable to reach shore, draw attention to yourself by waving your arm and yelling for help.If you see someone in trouble, don't become a victim too
• Get help from a lifeguard.
• If a lifeguard is not available, have someone call 911.
• Throw the rip current victim something that floats such as a lifejacket, cooler or inflatable ball.
• Yell instructions on how to escape.
• Remember, many people drown while trying to save someone else from a rip current.
Source: National Weather Service