There will be no puns, amusing bits or fun facts this week. Instead, a solemn warning and public service message to remind us all about the power and deadliness of Mother Nature.

In the last two weeks, there have been two fatalities on the Island’s south shore. Both of these incidents are a tragic reminder of the dangers that lurk on a beautiful shore. While these accidents may or may not have been caused by perilous ocean conditions, it is always important to keep in mind the dangers of the water and the real risk of rip currents.

According to the United States Life Saving Association, the number of deaths due to rip currents is about 100 per year. More telling is another statistic from the same organization — that 80 per cent of the rescues by surf beach lifeguards are the result of people getting caught in a rip current.

Rip currents are powerful currents of water that flow away from the shore (perpendicular to the beach), through the surf zone and past the line of breaking waves through a breach (or rip, thus the name) in the sandbar. They occur when differences in the strength of waves cause circulation cells that pull water rapidly away from the shoreline. The resulting rip currents are fast, with speeds from two feet per second to an incredible eight feet per second.

A rip current is not the same as an undertow. A rip current is sometimes called a riptide but that is a misnomer, since the tides have no bearing on this phenomenon. An undertow is the backwash of a wave and pulls the swimmer down, instead of out.

Seen from above, a rip current resembles a mushroom cloud of rough water. There are other telltale clues to identify a rip current. Heed the warning when you see a channel of choppy, churning sea, which could indicate a rip current or at least rough waters to consider. Look for a noticeable difference in water color, or a line of foam and/or debris moving seaward. Finally, a break in the incoming wave pattern can give you a hint. If any or all of these conditions are present, proceed with caution, if at all.

If you do find yourself caught in a rip current, don’t panic. You can break its grip. Don’t ever be hesitant to call for help. Never fight against the current: allow it to take you away from the shore. You can tread water or float to save energy. Once it has taken you out and the current weakens, swim out of it (left or right), parallel to the shore. Most rip currents are from 30 to 100 feet wide.

Prepare yourself beforehand. Tell yourself that no matter how startling it may be to be suddenly seized by a rip current, you are determined that you will not panic, and you will not give in to the first natural instinct to struggle straight back against it.

If you can do that, you will be fine; and you will know how to work with nature instead of against it.


Suzan Bellincampi is director of the Felix Neck Wildlife Sanctuary in Edgartown.