Lisa Berrios, an avid beachgoer of St. Augustine Beach, lost her 16-year-old cousin to a rip current. He died a hero, after successfully rescuing a drowning girl who was first sucked into the tide.
With another Florida summer in full swing, so is the frequency with which rip currents indiscriminately claim lives of beachgoers, from tourists to natives.
According to the National Weather Service, there have already been three Florida rip current fatalities in 2020, at Fort Pierce Beach, Perdido Key and Siesta Key, which begs the question: How many Florida beachgoers know how to survive a rip current?
Berrios, of Fajardo, Puerto Rico, learned exactly how at a young age.
“People worry about sunblock, sharks and teaching kids to watch out for jellyfish, but nothing about ocean currents,” Berrios said.
The ocean, unlike a pool or lake, is not a standing body of water. Therefore, educating yourself on currents before heading for the waves could, quite literally, save your life, she said.
“We need to raise awareness and save lives. We teach our children basic life lessons on land, but why does it stop there?” Berrios said, “They think that it’s only about knowing how to swim, but that’s not true.”
Even people who are great swimmers and physically fit have drowned in rip currents, when not prepared. A recent example: In May, former World Wrestling Entertainment Professional, Shad Gaspard, was victim to a rip current in Venice Beach, California, that claimed his life.
Andrew Zimmerman, University of Florida associate professor of geological sciences, dives into how to survive a rip current.
“A rip current is a focused, local, and very strong current of water that runs along the beach and out to the ocean,” Zimmerman said.
He recommended that beachgoers scan the water to identify conditions before wading in.
“Before you jump in the water, just look. See if there’s a murky spot where the wave is being knocked down,” Zimmerman said, “Rip currents can occur where there’s a low spot in the beach and where there are no waves.”
Zimmerman explained that many people, especially children, panic while caught in a rip current, which can lead to drowning. What should you do instead?
“It’s actually pretty easy, you don’t panic,” Zimmerman said, “Just swim parallel to the beach in one direction, then you can make your way back.”
Ryan Muscarella and Gracie Stack, St. Johns County Marine Rescue lifeguards, stationed together at St. Augustine Beach on July 8 recommended that beachgoers greet their local lifeguards and not hesitate to ask questions regarding the water conditions.
“I recommend that people who come to the ocean, especially with kids, make sure that they are comfortable in the water because it is terrifying if you’re not comfortable out there,” Muscarella said.
“The best thing you could do, if caught in a rip current, is to stay afloat and keep your head above the water,” Muscarella said, “It may get scary, but eventually, every rip current dies at a certain distance out there.”
Stack said, “The deeper you go, the easier it is to get swept out. If you stay waist-deep in the water, that’s less of your body getting pulled, whereas if you’re chest-deep, that’s the majority of your body in the water getting pulled out there.”
She added that rip currents are easier to spot wearing polarized sunglasses.
Video below: Ryan Muscarella, St. Johns County Marine Rescue lifeguard, giving tips on how to recognize and how to survive a rip current.