Earlier this month, a family caught in a riptide in Panama City Beach, Florida, got lucky when dozens of other beachgoers formed a human chain to bring them safely back to shore.
Getting caught in a riptide — technically a rip current — can be deadly, and it’s best to teach kids what to do if they get caught in one. A rip current is a narrow channel of water that rushes from the shore back to sea; it flows quickly out and can carry swimmers along with it. Rip currents are sometimes identifiable because they may look choppier, foamier or milkier than the water around them, or they may be a slightly different color than the surrounding water because sand is mixing in, says Tom Donovan, supervising lifeguard at Robert Moses State Park.
Here’s what to do if caught in one:
- Don’t panic. You won’t be swept completely to sea; eventually the rip current will dissipate and you will be able to get out of it and swim back to shore or signal for help. “Do a dog paddle, tread water,” Donavan says. The rip current won’t pull you under water, he says.
- Wave an arm and yell for help. “Try to draw attention,” Donovan says.
- Don’t try to swim back toward shore against the current. Most drownings from rip currents occur because the swimmer becomes exhausted from the futile effort, Donovan says.
- If you can, swim parallel to shore. You may be able to swim out of the narrow channel of current into calmer water. Then, head back toward shore by swimming diagonally to minimize your chance of being pulled back into the rip current.
- If you are out of energy, float on your back. The current will likely dissipate just past where the waves are breaking, Donovan says.