JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Although tropical cyclones, thunderstorms and tornadoes are often the first that come to mind when you think of the most dangerous weather phenomena in Florida, there is another weather-related hazard that ranks as the deadliest: rip currents.
Florida’s beaches attract millions of residents and tourists each year. However, while there may be beautiful weather in the sky, there are unseen dangers in the waters. Rip currents, sometimes called rip tides or undertows, occur naturally and affect many Florida beaches year-round.
Since 1995, rip currents have accounted for more than 300 drownings along Florida’s Gulf and Atlantic beaches. In fact, rip currents kill more people in Florida in an average year than hurricanes, tornadoes and lightning combined. Rip current injuries and fatalities often are under-reported, but in 2019, at least 30 people lost their lives due to rip currents or high surf. This number is well above what occurred in 2016 (19) and 2017 (15), and the same as what occurred in 2018 (30 fatalities). Much like lightning, Florida typically leads the nation in reported rip current drownings each year.
Many of these drowning incidents occur on days when the weather is quite pleasant, with a nice breeze blowing onshore. This catches beach goers by surprise since fair weather is usually associated with pleasant ocean conditions. Rip currents can occur at any beach with breaking waves, including the Great Lakes up north.
A rip current is a strong channel of water moving away from the shore at beaches. Rip currents are part of the natural near-shore ocean circulation and are quite common, occurring at many beaches every day on both the Atlantic and Gulf coasts of Florida. Rip currents typically form along the beach at breaks in the nearshore underwater sandbar, but they also form near structures such as jetties and piers. Rip currents form when water piled against the shore begins to return to deeper water. Typically, onshore winds and waves push water over the sandbar, allowing excess water to collect between the bar and the beach. Eventually, this excess water starts to return seaward through low spots in the sandbar, “ripping” an opening. While rip currents can happen any day of the year, weather or ocean conditions can cause them to be stronger and more frequent on some days than on others.
You can sometimes see the signs that show a rip current is present. A visible channel of churning, choppy water; a narrow channel where there is a difference in water color; a line of seaward moving foam; an offshore area of murky water are all indicators of possible rip currents.
Rip currents are dangerous because they can pull unprepared swimmers away from shore and into deeper offshore waters. They become especially dangerous when swimmers panic and struggle against the current while being pulled farther and farther away from the beach.
Contrary to popular belief, rip currents do not pull a swimmer under the water. The force of a rip current is too strong for even the strongest of swimmers, and attempts to swim directly back toward shore, especially for the panicked and tired swimmer, can be fatal. Rip currents can travel as fast as 5 mph, or about eight feet per second, faster than an Olympic swimmer.
At the beach, look for the nearest lifeguards and check with them about existing water conditions. If you’re going to a beach with no lifeguard on duty, look for warning flags or signs. Since 2006, approximately 80% of all rip current-related drowning incidents in Florida occurred at unguarded beaches. If you find yourself caught in a rip current, don’t panic and don’t fight the current. Swim in a direction parallel to the shoreline either toward your left or right. Just remembering the phrase, “Don’t fight, swim left or right,” could save your life. When free of the current, swim at an angle back toward shore.
Dangers out on the water
Florida’s Atlantic and Gulf coasts also attract plenty of boaters year round and Florida leads the nation with nearly one million registered boats. Before venturing out on the water, it is important for boaters to check on the weather. What may seem like a tranquil start to the day can quickly turn violent with hazards such as severe thunderstorms, strong winds, rough seas, lightning and waterspouts. One way to be sure you are safe while boating is to check the marine forecasts with News4JAX when planning your voyage. Stay in port if thunderstorms are expected.
If you decide to venture out into the open waters, remember that lightning presents the greatest danger. Be prepared to seek shelter anytime lightning is seen or thunder is heard. Never let thunderstorms cut off your route back to land. If a thunderstorm or waterspout threatens, it is best to seek safe harbor immediately. If you are unable to get back to the dock, be sure everyone aboard is wearing a life jacket, as gusty thunderstorm winds or waterspouts can quickly overturn small boats. If lightning is nearby, get low or head below deck, and stay away from masts and ungrounded metal objects. If caught near a waterspout, your best course of evasive action is to move at a 90-degree angle from its apparent movement, then seek safe harbor, if possible. Thunderstorms with frequent cloud-to ground lightning often affect the inland lakes and rivers during the afternoon, while early morning lightning storms are more common along the coast. Knowing what kind of weather to expect is one of the keys to staying safe during your boating adventure.