Warning Dangerous Currents Lurk in Some Cape Cod Beaches

"Rip currents: local swimmers' biggest danger!"

By ERIC WILLIAMS and JASON KOLNOScapecast@capecodonline.comJune 11, 2011 12:00 AM

Forget sharks, tsunamis or typhoons. If you are a swimmer on SouthCoast or Outer Cape beaches, the biggest thing to worry about is rip currents. They are the main reason a lifeguard may suddenly enter your life.

"It's not uncommon for a lifeguard to be performing some kind of assist related to a rip current," said Robert Grant, chief ranger of the Cape Cod National Seashore. Grant said beaches known for their surf are the likeliest locales for rip currents.

Rip currents can pose a risk in areas off Horseneck Beach in Westport depending on the conditions. This can happen after storms have passed by, for example, said Richie Earle, Westport's harbormaster.

"If you have never experienced a rip current before, it can be scary," he said.

On the Cape Cod National Seashore, dangerous currents occur at Coast Guard and Nauset Light beaches in Eastham; Marconi Beach in South Wellfleet; and Head of the Meadow Beach in North Truro. Town beaches on the Atlantic side in Orleans, Wellfleet and Truro are also in the rip current zone.

"You could have a rip just about every day at one of the beaches," Grant said.

While the prospect of a strong and sudden river of water pulling you out to sea is intimidating, Cape Cod National Seashore supervisory lifeguard Gordon Miller said avoiding panic is paramount.

"Stay calm and just think about what's going on," said Miller, who has 27 years of experience patrolling National Seashore beaches. "Remember, it's not going to take you to Portugal. It is only going to take you out maybe 50 yards, 75 yards. And then it will disperse because this is just the water flowing back off the beach."

According to information provided by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, rip currents can form when waves break near the shore and water piles up between the breakers and the beach. Sometimes, this water returns to the sea by forming a narrow stream that moves quickly away from shore.

Rip currents may only be 10 or 20 feet wide, though they can get wider. The currents slow down as they move offshore, but can extend for hundreds of feet.

"You want to (swim) parallel to the beach, out of the rip," Miller said. "Do not fight it."

Once out of the current's grip, a swimmer should be able to return to shore.

Earle encouraged swimmers to go in the water only when a lifeguard is on duty and pay attention if posted signs warn of rip currents. He said swimmers can ask lifeguards if there are areas where rip currents are less of a problem.

Like Miller, Earle said the key to surviving a rip current is remaining calm.

Rip currents may be difficult to identify from the shore, though some clues may be visible, according to NOAA. Clues include a channel of churning water, an area of noticeably different water color, a break in the incoming wave pattern or a line of seaweed or foam moving steadily seaward.

The big lesson: Swimming in the mighty ocean is a different kettle of fish than a placid pond or lake.

"Have a realistic evaluation of what your swimming ability is," Grant said. "Don't swim alone. Before you swim check with the lifeguards."

Standard-Times reporter Brian Boyd contributed information for this report.

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