Flip. Float. Follow: How to survive when caught in a rip current

The waters of Lake Michigan and suburban lakes may look inviting as temperatures rise, but before taking a dip, beachgoers should recognize and know how to deal with a potentially deadly hazard just below the surface.

Rip currents, powerful forces that pull water and anything caught in them away from shore, can occur at any beach with breaking waves. Don't take them lightly, safety experts say.

“They're definitely a concern,” said Lt. Junior Grade Phillip Gurtler, public affairs officer for U.S. Coast Guard Sector Lake Michigan, which covers 1,638 miles of coastline in Wisconsin, Illinois, Indiana and Michigan.

“If I could tell every person in all four states to watch out for rip currents, I would,” he said. “Yes, it's a lake, (but) treat it more like an ocean.”

A rip current is a narrow, fast-moving path or channel of water moving away from a beach roughly perpendicular from shore. They typically happen when water that's crashed on a shoreline in a wave begins to recede back into the lake or ocean.

According to the National Ocean Service, rip currents account for more than 80% of rescues performed by surf beach lifeguards. Locals along Lake Michigan are just as wary.

Lt. Jacob Mount, director of the Waukegan Fire Department water rescue team, said rip currents are dangerous because of their varying degrees and unpredictability.

They 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 than an Olympic swimmer can swim, according to Mount, who's a certified rescue diver and swift water specialist.

To escape, swim parallel to shore until out of the current, then swim back in at an angle.

“Remain calm to conserve your energy,” the National Ocean Service advises. “Think of the rip current like a treadmill that can't be turned off, and which you need to step to the side of the treadmill to get off.”

Trouble arises when people are unable to get back to the beach because of fear, panic, exhaustion or lack of swimming skills, experts say.

“These currents are pulling you from one spot to another,” said Homewood resident David Benjamin, who co-founded the Great Lakes Surf Rescue Project Inc. nearly 10 years ago after a near-drowning experience while surfing on Lake Michigan in Portage, Indiana.

Pounded by waves after wiping out, Benjamin said he panicked and was gasping for air.

“A person's instinct when they're drowning is to fight to survive, and they exhaust themselves,” he said.

Recognizing the signs of drowning from an article he'd read, Benjamin said he quit fighting, calmed down and did nothing but float.

“If you don't float (first), you'll never get to the exit strategy part,” he said.

The mission of the Surf Rescue Project is to eradicate drownings through public education and awareness. The organization has made nearly 800 water safety presentations since its inception.

One of them, with Benjamin presenting, was in 2019 to kick off the Glencoe Park District's water safety and recreation program.

While most beachgoers know how to swim, very few know a drowning survival strategy like “Flip, Float and Follow” when caught in a current, he said.

According to the National Weather Service, rip currents can be spotted as a channel of churning, choppy water; a noticeable difference in water color; a line of foam, seaweed or debris moving toward the lake; or a break in the incoming wave pattern.

Rip currents are present on many beaches every day, but they usually are too slow to be dangerous for swimmers, the weather service says. However, conditions such as wave height and frequency can quickly propel them to dangerous speeds.

That's why planning is essential.

“Our lifeguards are trained to spot rip currents and how to do a rescue under those conditions,” said Elizabeth Gogola, director of communications and marketing for the Park District of Highland Park.

The district operates four beaches on Lake Michigan, but Rosewood is the only swimming beach. Signs there explains what beachgoers should do if caught in a dangerous current.

A sign warns of rip currents at Rosewood Beach in Highland Park. "Yes, it's a lake, (but) treat it more like an ocean," said Lt. Junior Grade Phillip Gurtler of the U.S. Coast Guard. Courtesy of Park District of Highland Park
  The danger of rip currents is part of lifeguard training at Glencoe Beach and other locations along Lake Michigan. Paul Valade/
High winds that create large waves, like these crashing along a Lake Michigan retaining wall at Chicago's 31st Street Beach, can make rip currents fast and dangerous. Associated Press File Photo

How to stay safe at the beach

Here are some tips for staying safe on the beach this summer and surviving if you're caught in a rip current.

• Know how to swim.

• Never swim alone and swim at a lifeguard-protected beach when possible.

• Tell someone where you will be.

• Know the area and the weather.

• Have a drowning survival strategy.

• Look for posted signs and warning flags that may indicate hazardous conditions.

• Obey instructions and orders from life guards. Ask them about conditions.

• Be cautious at all times. Rip currents are present even if you don't see them.

• Stay at least 100 feet away from piers and jetties. Permanent rip currents often exist along these structures.

• If you are stuck in a current, swim parallel to shore until you are out of it. Or flip on your back, float and follow the current until you are out.

• Throw the rip current victim something that floats — a lifejacket, a cooler, an inflatable ball. Yell instructions on how to escape.

• When in doubt, don't go out.

Sources: National Weather Service; Waukegan Fire Department; U.S. Coast Guard; Great Lakes Surf Rescue Project

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