It started as a normal, happy day at the seashore. My sister, "Elle," my 11-year-old niece, "Bren," and I were vacationing in a big, remote beach
house on the North Carolina Outer Banks, and enjoying a laid-back holiday filled with long walks, seashell gathering and wading in the surf.
Trying to help my niece overcome her fear of the ocean, I coaxed her into the water about thigh-deep, and we rode waves to shore on her inflatable
raft. The surf was a little rough that day following a storm that had moved through earlier, so our escapade was rough and tumble, filled with
giggles and our eyes stinging from the salt water as we struggled to keep a grip on the raft's rope and stand up again. My sister looked on for a
while, and then decided to join the fun. She took the raft out, and we watched her ride a wave, laughing as the waves brought her into the shallows.
She went out for a second run.
Suddenly everything changed
I was horrified to see that Elle was suddenly much farther out to sea, up to her neck in water and without the raft. "Need the raft!" she gasped. It
took a second for me to grasp that she was really in trouble, and not just playing. I turned shoreward for a second, directed my niece to go toward
the beach, and then plunged after the float and waded after Elle -- who was now even farther out -- with it. When I got within range of her, I pushed
the raft out to her. Seeing that she caught it, I turned to my niece, intending to scoop her up and carry her onshore.
Then, things really went South
Somehow, in a mixed up, slow-motion moment that only lasted a few seconds, my niece and sister came together on the float and I found myself 30 feet
away from the pair, and unable to touch the bottom. I swam a bit, thinking I might have just stepped into a trough, and tried again. No bottom. By
this time, I was another 10-20 feet out. A huge wave crashed over my head, leaving me breathless. I yelled to Elle, "Bring the raft this way!" and
tried to tread water.
There's simply no way that I can convey the horror of being caught in a rip current. I had heard of them before, but the actual experience didn't feel
like I imagined it would. There was no rush of water, no sense of being pulled along, only the horrid realization that every few seconds, I was much,
much further out to sea. Even then, it was still dawning on me what had me in its grip.
Roughly 100 people drown from these currents in the US annually, and I can see why. No matter how you tell yourself to remain calm and avoid fighting
the current, every fiber in your body screams at you to swim straight for the shore. It's the worst thing you can possibly do. I tried it, and rapidly
realized I was getting exhausted and wouldn't last long. I said a quick prayer and rolled over onto my back. "OK," I told myself, "Just stay like this
for a minute and get your breath." Much calmer now, I remembered the rip current advice I had read, and began backstroking parallel to the beach
toward my sister. Eventually, and much to my relief, they reached me.
Still not out of danger
The three of us clung to the raft, but the current was still dragging us out. To make matters worse, my niece had become hysterical, pulling one
corner of the raft so it went into a tailspin and screaming every few seconds, each time another wave washed over us. We were all in danger of being
swept from the float, helpless into the rolling ocean. My sister somehow got Bren's chest up on the raft between us. I said to my niece, "Bren, look
at me. We need your help. I need you to stay there and kick your feet in my direction. "I caaaann'tt!" she wailed and then relapsed into hysterical
screaming as another wave hit us broadside.
I looked her dead-on and commanded in a deep voice, "You can, and you will!" In that brief second, her eyes grew large and she was more afraid of me
than of the sea. But kick she did. Then, I convinced my sister that we needed to swim parallel to the shore, and we all began to work together in a
good direction. It took much longer than I can relate, but eventually we began to feel sand beneath our feet. We both tried to dig our toes in, but
the undertow kept making us lose our grip. We started to go back out again.
'Not going to die here today
We're cut from the same cloth, my sister and I, and I think our angry stubbornness (which we call "tenacity") kicked in at about the same moment. "Oh,
h_ll no, this is not dragging us back out!" I could see the same thought reflected in her expression. Eventually, after numerous tries, we found that
we could walk, and soon realized that we could wade. The water became shallower. Before long, we were dragging ourselves and Bren onto the dry shore,
flopping there like so many beached whales. Poor little Bren couldn't stop crying. "It's OK. Go ahead and cry it out, honey," we told her.
Things I've learned since
Please remember this and live to tell about it!
- Rip currents are on the surface of the water, not the same as the undertow which is at your feet. They pull you out to sea, not down.
- They can range anywhere from 10-20 feet wide to hundreds of feet wide, in a column stretching out from the shallows into a mushroom shape.
- They can move a swimmer at a rate of 8 feet per second, faster than even Michael Phelps can swim.
- Rip currents are stronger at low tide, and they often occur near sandbars (where we all think it's cool to wade because you can walk out so far).
- As I experienced, you don't feel yourself being pulled out in a rush of water. You feel stationary because the water is moving with you. It's just
that you're farther out to sea every few seconds.
- A good, stiff shot of vodka is just the thing after surviving such an ordeal.
You have two choices if you find yourself in a rip current: 1) Swim parallel to the shore until you're out of the current and then swim diagonally
toward the shore and 2) Let the thing take you out to sea until it dissipates, which may be hundreds of yards out, and then swim sideways/diagonally
toward the shore. Method #1 is truly exhausting but gets you back on terra firma more quickly.
Stay safe, everyone!
edit on 6/15.2014 by graceunderpressure because: (no reason given)