Editorial: Learn how to escape a rip current

The Associated Press reported an alarming story last week: 10 drownings due to rip currents on the northern Gulf Coast in the last two weeks of June. Reports indicate the number has grown to 15 since then, although it's not clear that rip currents have been involved in them all.

The waters did not just claim weak swimmers. Some were athletic. A firefighter from Georgia for one. Fathers trying to rescue their children in two cases.

At least six of the deaths took place near Panama City Beach on the Florida panhandle. The awful news stretched west along Alabama beaches too.

Tragic story. Sadly, there are tragic stories every day. So many that it is easy to become numb to them.

Awhile back if we had come across this story, we too may have simply paused, then quickly moved on.

But the heartache is too close now to look away.

On vacation two years ago, our friend and colleague Pete Rosengren, the Daily Herald's 42-year-old vice president of sales and digital strategies, died in those same waters while rescuing children caught in a rip current.

One of the true dangers of rip currents, whether you're talking about in the Great Lakes or in the great oceans, is that most of us do not take them seriously enough.

We don't think about them. Just as we don't think about what we would do if we drove our car into a retention pond on a stormy night.

The threats seem remote. But they are all too real. The Gulf Coast story is just a headline teasing to far more recurrent tragedies. Across the country in the last week of June alone, 55 people drowned in rip currents, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Don't wait until you're in one to learn how to react. Because if you wait until then, your instincts might prompt you to do the exact opposite of what you need to do.

You do not fight a rip current. You go out with it, then swim across.

The first rule in surviving a rip current, of course, is to avoid getting into one in the first place. If warning flags are posted, take heed and appropriate precautions. That includes staying out of the water if the flags indicate it is dangerous.

Swim where there are lifeguards.

If you do get caught in a rip current, remember these lessons that water safety experts told one of our reporters not long ago:

Rip currents typically aren't more than 15 yards wide and 100 yards long, and while they don't pull people under water, they can carry them 50 to 100 yards from shore faster and harder than an Olympic swimmer can swim.

If you're caught in one, stay calm. Panic can make you try to swim against the current and that leads only to exhaustion.

Instead, try to reach the surface on your back and let the current take you out until you're able to swim parallel to the shore - across the current. Once out of the current, then it is safe to swim toward the beach.

This technique may seem counterintuitive. But it could save your life. Commit it to memory. And teach it to those you love.

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