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How do I spot a rip current?

Gareth McGrath

You probably can’t. Rip currents, which look like choppy water or a wave break, can be very difficult to spot – even for surfers and experienced swimmers.

That’s why it’s important for beachgoers to pay attention to rip current forecasts, watch for red warning flags along beaches, and only swim where there are lifeguards present.

While they don’t get the notoriety of a shark attack, rip currents are the top killers along North Carolina beaches.

Although relatively small, rip currents are powerful channels of water moving away from the beach that can catch even the strongest swimmers and pull them out.

The dangerous currents, generally less than 25 feet wide and roughly 100 to 200 feet long, often form around jetties, piers and breaks in near-shore sandbars.

While they generally don’t pull people under, rip currents become killers when swimmers panic as they’re carried out to sea. At least 100 people die from rip currents in the United States every year.

If caught in one, swimmers should either swim parallel to the shore or allow themselves to be sucked out until the current dissipates.

Several groups, including N.C. Sea Grant and the National Weather Service, have teamed up in recent years to try to better educate the public about the danger posed by the largely invisible currents. Initiatives include placing rip current warning signs at most of the region’s public beach accesses.

For more information and daily rip forecasts, go to http://www.erh.noaa.gov/ilm/beach/rip_risk.shtml.

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