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Renewed rip current warnings with summer

As summer beach season gets into full swing and more people than ever are crowding the idyllic shores of North County, officials are sounding the alarm again on the risk of rip currents — a dangerous and ever-present phenomenon that can strike without warning and drown unsuspecting swimmers.

Authorities must also deal with public misunderstanding about what rip currents are, where they are found, and what to do if they get caught in one.

Steve Harrison, a forecaster of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s San Diego office, is one of many who try to get the word out on a daily basis. “If you find yourself in a rip current, you’re going to know it,” he explained. “If you’re out on the surf and try to make it back to the shore, you’d be struggling, getting exhausted and not making much headway. That’s when you know you’re in a rip current.”

Most recently, Bacilio Manuel-Tomas, 39, and his nephew, Geraldo Cruz-Manuel, 17, found themselves in one while swimming at Moonlight Beach in Encinitas. Though they were rescued, Cruz-Manuel died of his injuries on June 2 and Manuel-Tomas passed away June 14.

Rip currents occur when water piles up on the beach with nowhere to go except back out to sea. “Usually when you have larger surf, you’ll get stronger rip currents. However, the danger still exists in small surf as well,” said Harrison, citing one mistaken idea people have about rip currents. “That’s when people let their guard down.

“When you have surf of 2 to 4 feet, you’re going to get a lot of people in the water, and those are the days people usually get caught in them. When the waters are visibly choppy, (fewer) people are caught because they know to stay away.”

Rip currents come in various forms. One kind can be created if there’s a dip in a sandbar; it occurs when water rushes out of a hole in the sandbar and into the ocean. Another is formed when lateral currents converge between breaking waves, and yet another can strike along piers or jetties.

Says Harrison, “Recognizing places where rip currents typically form is the most important.”

While there’s no exact way to know in advance when a rip current will form, Harrison says that sometimes you can tell by just looking at the shore. “If you see breaking waves to both sides of you and in the middle there are no waves or foamy water — that’s an indication. Also, if you see brownish-looking water flowing back to sea, that’s a rip current.”

If swimmers are caught in a rip current, the most important thing is not to panic, but to swim parallel to the shore, towards calm water. “You’ll want to swim to the side, at an angle,” says Harrison. “Once you get out of it, that’s when you’ll be able to swim towards the shore.”

Overall, he stresses swimming only on lifeguard-protected beaches and checking with them to see whether rip currents are in evidence that day. “When you’re at a lifeguard-protected beach, your chances of drowning are reduced substantially.”

And for everyone who calls rip currents “rip tides”? Think again, he says. “A rip tide is a misnomer. I’m not really sure where that term came from.”


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