Alert: Rip currents to impact your weekend beach plans

Florence too far away to generate large surf, but surf is gaining strength

Florence surf won't really build until mid week...
Florence surf won't really build until mid week...

JACKSONVILLE BEACH, Fla. – Heading out to Jacksonville area beaches this weekend? Hoping to see big waves? Maybe some gusty winds?

Well, the reality is that surf will not be higher this weekend. Florence is too far away for bigger waves, but Florence and the easterly winds we have seen recently are creating more powerful surf, so the threat of deadly rip currents will be increasing.

Rip currents are the most deadly weather-related event to impact our area, deadlier than hurricanes, tornadoes and severe thunderstorms. Between two and five people a year die in our beach waters. Many times in one single occurrence, multiple fatalities occur. Why? People panic. One person gets caught in the outgoing (seaward) rush of water and then others attempt to help rescue them but ultimately panic as the current of water starts pulling them out to sea as well.

Is there a particular type of rip current weather?

Yes, most typically it is a beautiful day at the beach. Yes, sunny skies with warm surf and air temperatures along with an onshore wind. The combination can be deadly. 

But how? The hook to getting people in trouble when in the surf starts with sunny skies, warm waters and air temperatures, all the key weather conditions that typically bring a crowd to the beach. So as more people actually go into the ocean, not all of these people are aware of developing rip currents.

Rip currents occur when water is pushed onto the beach through a series of waves. But when winds are blowing straight onto the beach, they actually can slow the rush of water back out to sea, until there is too much water along the beaches and a fast current of water forms that rushes out to sea.

Lifeguards are telling beachgoers to be aware of building rip currents over the week as Tropical Storm Florence (soon to become hurricane again and possibly a major hurricane) moves closer to the East Coast, creating rough surf and high waves.

On Friday in Jacksonville Beach, News4Jax spent the day with a veteran lifeguard who was keeping an eye on swimmers because of the potential dangers.

Though it looked like a perfect day with plenty of sunshine, a red flag flapping in the wind signaled that there were strong rip currents, which can be dangerous to swimmers. 

Rescue swimmer Gordon VanDusen is a pro at spotting rip currents off Jacksonville Beach.  

“We call this the central beach rip current," he said.

After monitoring this more than 4-mile stretch of the beach for nine seasons, VanDusen knows where the hidden dangers lurk.

“Right here toward to the water’s edge, that’s what the rip current pulls from. It pulls from this side and this side over here and it converges to make that turbulent churned up water," VanDusen said.

With only two rescues and five assists during the month of August, VanDusen fears that Florence’s potential double-digit wave heights could put many beachgoers at risk for getting caught in rip currents.

At one point on Friday, VanDusen turned on sirens and told one beachgoer, “Attention ma’am in front the lifeguard truck, you are swimming in front a dangerous rip current.”  

That's called a preventative action, which is meant to alert and protect swimmers from the dangers that lifeguards see from the shores and from the sky. 

Then VanDusen took the Weather Authority up to the tower. 

“And from this perspective, you can really pinpoint those rip currents," VanDusen said. "See where we were calling those people out of the rip currents earlier? You can see where the water pulls here. With the assistance of polarized sunglasses, you can see the discoloration of the water.”

In addition to having polarized sunglasses to notice the discoloration in the waves, another “P” to remember if you are caught in a current is to swim parallel to shore.

Finally, VanDusen said, the best action for you to take is, when you arrive at the beach, have a conversation with the lifeguard about the potential threats and the direction of the currents. 

Remember, if you ever feel you are being pulled out to sea in a rip current, do these three things:

  • Don't panic.
  • Swim up or down the beach. You can even float.
  • Once you don't feel the pull of the rip current, swim normally back to shore.
  • Below is a look at the expected surf over the next week at Jacksonville Beach.

    Florence surf won't really build until mid week...
    Florence surf won't really build until mid week...

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