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Texas Sea Grant researchers help beach visitors avoid the grip of rip currents

Monday, June 3, 2013

by Cindie Powell, Texas Sea Grant

"Break the Grip of the Rip!" campaign sign

A version of this sign, developed by the Break the Grip of the Rip! campaign, appears on many U.S. beaches. Designed to educate beachgoers about the existence of rip currents and how to escape them, it provides a limited depiction of how to identify one. (Credit: Michigan Sea Grant)

Dr. Chris Houser was studying rip current development on a beach in Florida when he noticed something curious: many beachgoers were spreading their beach blankets on the sand directly in front of an active rip current and swimming in the rip channel.

Houser began questioning the group, “Why did you choose this location?” A geography professor at Texas A&M University, Houser found the answer surprising — the beach visitors thought the area of the active rip current was the safer choice because it looked calmer than the breaking surf on either side.

This initial question led to a study funded by Texas Sea Grant, where Houser and fellow Texas A&M geographer, Dr. Christian Brannstrom, are assessing Texas beachgoer knowledge of rip currents, including if they can identify and avoid them. Houser and Brannstrom want to use the information gathered to create signs and other educational materials to better help people spot these dangerous currents, which kill more than 100 people every year on U.S. surf beaches.

Grad Student conducting survey

Grad Student conducting survey

A Texas A&M University graduate student surveys people on Galveston Island, Port Aransas and Corpus Christi beaches to find out how well-informed they were about rip current hazards. (Credit: Texas A&M University)

Following up on a previous study conducted by Houser in Florida, three Texas A&M geography graduate students surveyed beach visitors in Galveston and the Port Aransas/Corpus Christi area. Using five photographs of a wide range of surf conditions around the same rock groin, the students asked visitors which photo showed the most dangerous area and if they could identify the rip current. Rips may appear as choppy surf or unusually smooth water between breaking waves.

Despite more than half of the surveyed beachgoers correctly choosing the photo with a large rip current as the most dangerous, most failed to identify the rip current, instead believing it was located in the area of rough surf and waves. These results, in which only 22 percent in Galveston and 12 percent in the Port Aransas/Corpus Christi area accurately pinpointed the rip current, echoed Houser’s earlier experiences in Florida.

Lifeguard stand

Lifeguard stand

One the best and easiest safety measures beach visitors can take is swimming where there are lifeguards present. (Texas Sea Grant)

The researchers’ next challenge is to find a way to help the majority of beachgoers identify rip currents in their various guises. “If we know that what people are looking for as hazards when they go to the beach are the heavy breaking white waves, then there needs to be information out there that sometimes what you can’t see can be more dangerous,” Houser said.

Many of the rip current signs on American beaches were developed to support the “Break the Grip of the Rip” campaign, launched in 2004 through a partnership of the United States Lifesaving Association (USLA), National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the National Sea Grant College Program. The campaign also educates the public during Rip Current Awareness Week, which takes place the first full week of June each year.

USLA President B. Chris Brewster said the signs, which instruct people to stay calm if they are caught in a rip, are most valuable for swimmers in areas without lifeguards. “Panic is one of the biggest problems with people fighting rip currents. Just letting them know that they can get out of a rip current using some fairly simple techniques reduces the likelihood of panic.”

Brewster finds the campaign has been successful in its primary goals: increasing awareness of and dispelling myths about rip currents, and helping people learn how to escape a rip current if caught in one. “The signs and the educational effort have raised awareness substantially about the existence of rip currents and their prevalence wherever there is surf.”

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