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Don't fight a rip current: Try to go with the flow

Most people who get trapped in a rip current have something going for them: They probably already know how to swim. To get far enough out into the ocean to have a rip current overtake you, it's usually necessary to be a swimmer -- otherwise, you never should have gotten into the ocean in the first place.

When it comes to surviving a rip current, though, patience is just as important as good swimming skills.

What is a rip current?

A rip current, riptide, or undertow is a wave formation that happens along beaches. They become dangerous when swimmers and surfers encounter them. According to statistics from the U.S. Lifesaving Association (USLA), approximately 100 people die in rip currents every year, and tens of thousands require saving by lifeguards.

These dangerous channels of water are fast-moving and strong enough to carry away even the strongest of swimmers. In fact, there's no point in resisting these currents which run out to sea and eventually stop.

It's hard for scientists to predict with certainty when and where rip currents will form, but storms and high winds appear to be a factor -- even storms that are a good distance away from the beach can affect currents there.

How to identify rip currents

Trained observers might be able to witness a rip current. Here are a few of the most important signs:

  • A gap in the waves could indicate the presence of rip currents.
  • A clear channel of strong and choppy water.
  • A channel where debris and seaweed are moving quickly out to sea.
  • An area of discolored water created by sediment and sand mixed up by the current.

What to do if a rip current catches you

The most important thing to remember is to relax. Don't fight the current, but go with the flow. These rip currents will try to carry you away up to eight feet a second, which is faster than any human can swim. Swimming against the current is how people exhaust themselves and drown.

Instead of swimming against the current, gently tread water and swim perpendicular to the current, and don't worry if it carries you further away from shore. Rip currents are narrow, and you will eventually move out of its influence if you are swimming perpendicular to it. Next, swim back to land with the waves, but avoid the area where the rip current was.

Were you or a family member hurt by a rip current while visiting Hawaii?

In cases where a tourist visiting Hawaii gets caught up, injured or killed by a rip current, it's possible that it wasn't the tourist's fault if he or she was on a guided tour or taking a surfing lesson. If you or a family member were hurt by a rip current while visiting Hawaii, make sure you investigate your legal rights and options.

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