Within surfing and rescue communities, the media has gained a bad reputation for exaggerating the threat swells pose to beachgoers, ironically putting them at even greater risk.
While the vast majority of deaths on U.S. beaches are caused by “fatal” rip currents, experts warn that in almost every case, the fatality was not caused by the current itself, but rather by the swimmer’s reaction.
DailyMail.com spoke to Wyatt Werneth – former Lifeguard Chief of Brevard County in Florida – about how to deal with rip currents and his advice was pretty simple: “Just lay on your back and float, that’s all you need to do.”
Like a A shortage of lifeguards plagues the US coastal statesswimmers hitting the country’s beaches this summer are being encouraged to educate themselves about rip currents and other ocean hazards.
Rips are strong, narrow currents that flow roughly from the shoreline through the surf and out to sea. Crucially, they never flow down and cannot pull swimmers underwater.
Wyatt Werneth served as chief lifeguard for Florida’s Brevard County from 1999 to 2008.
Wereneth said the typical advice to swim parallel to shore to escape a current wasn’t always effective because where there’s a gulf stream, there’s often another next to it. Trying too hard to escape can cause exhaustion and result in drowning. Pictured is a series of rip currents above Pensacola Beach in Florida
According to the United States Lifesaving Association, more than 100 deaths a year in the US are caused by rip currents, almost all of which are avoidable. This year alone, rip currents have killed 39 people, according to the National Weather Service.
Nearly half of those were in Florida.
Werneth was the Chief Lifeguard from 1999 to 2008, during which time he trained hundreds to man Brevard County’s 45-mile shoreline.
Now based in Cocoa Beach, Florida, he serves as a spokesperson for the National Lifeguard Association and in the aviation unit of the Brevard County Sheriff’s Office, conducting sea rescues from a helicopter.
In 2007, he paddleboarded 345 miles from Miami to Jacksonville to raise awareness of rip currents, a stunt for which he became a Guinness World Record holder.
‘Out of 11 [fatalities] that happened here in Brevard County this year were all related to rip currents,” Werneth said. “Through the years I’ve kept lifeguards, most of the fatalities were gulf streams.”
In 2007, Werneth paddleboarded 345 miles from Miami to Jacksonville to raise awareness of rip currents, a stunt for which he became a Guinness World Record holder
Pictured is an aerial view of a rip current, visible as a flat band on the surface. Rip currents are generally more visible from an elevated position
“All of this can be predicted and prevented,” he said. In the simplest terms, his advice was, “Don’t panic.”
And while that may seem trivial and fairly obvious, it’s absolutely crucial. If someone panics in a rush, they may exhaust themselves and struggle to keep their heads above water.
“What we ask people to do when they’re in a rip current is not to panic, just relax a little bit, wait for help and try to maintain your buoyancy,” Werneth said.
If those caught in the current can keep afloat, they can simply float out of the current, which more often than not will loop around and lead them back to shallow water.
Werneth claimed to be so comfortable with rip currents that he could ride them – a common trick among experienced surfers who will use the help to take them out to sea.
“I’m not going to drown in a power surge,” he said.
‘We actually use mouse currents. When I go surfing I first walk to the beach and see where the rip current is and I jump in.
“A trained individual will not drown in a power surge under normal circumstances, there is no reason for that,” he added.
A rip current warning on a beach in Galveston, Texas offers the traditional advice to swim parallel to the shore to escape the current
Traditional advice, also long circulated around rip currents, is to swim ‘parallel’ to the shore rather than directly towards it.
While that advice may have some value, Werneth suggested it wasn’t necessarily all that helpful and if this exhausts the swimmer, it would be best to focus on staying afloat.
‘There was [advice to] shooting parallel along the shore to get out of a rip current, but actually studying the beach and looking at the beach I’m responsible for, parallel swimming doesn’t work because you’re swimming right into another beach – they’re side by side.’
Dyes and aerial cameras can be useful in revealing how rip currents actually work, and in many cases, especially when caused by man-made phenomena, a series of rip currents can form side by side. They also come in different shapes.
“They are not just a lane or an area. It can be side by side, and they don’t necessarily just go straight out, they loop around,” Werneth said.
When asked if a Gulf Stream could carry a swimmer so far out into the ocean that they wouldn’t be able to return, Werneth said that wasn’t a likely scenario.
“I can tell you that nothing like this has ever happened,” he said. “If the person does everything right, they just float in the water, it’s just a daily activity on the beach. They won’t drown because the rip current swept them away.
“I’ve never heard of a case where someone got pulled back and got lost in a rip current because they went too far out. That’s not to say something like this can’t happen, it hasn’t happened in my experience,” he added.
A schematic representation of the traditional advice to swimmers, suggesting that to escape a rip current you should swim parallel to the shore. Werneth suggested it wasn’t necessarily that helpful and if this exhausts the swimmer it would be best to focus on staying afloat.
Werneth also gave DailyMail.com advice for bystanders or those on the shore thinking about how to save those struggling in the water.
Crucially, he said if someone else gets caught in a rip current, don’t go in the water to save them unless you have some kind of float.
“If you have to respond to someone who never goes into the water without a float, you become part of that problem and you’re not a solution,” he said.
Werneth said there were 26 fatalities during his eight-year tenure as lifeguard chief – more than half of which involved “a double drowning or a rescuer drowning.”
And in his experience, the person who goes out to rescue was more likely to die than the person who needs to be rescued.
“I think the person panics and uses the rescuer to stay afloat, pushes him under and basically beats the rescuer up,” he said.