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Rip Currents Hit Home

Junior Lessard with Hobey Baker Award.

Junior Lessard, national collegiate hockey star, almost lost his life in a Lake Superior rip current last summer.

Lake Superior swimmers received a deadly lesson last August when a young man drowned in a rip current off of Park Point. "That was really a wake-up call for many people," said Jesse Schomberg, Minnesota Sea Grant coastal communities educator. "Before then, we didn't think rip currents happened around here."

Nationally, rip currents account for over 100 deaths every year, more than for tornadoes, hurricanes or lightning. It’s estimated that 80 percent of surf rescues involve rip currents. And don’t call them rip tides - that’s a misnomer, along with undertow. Rip tides are caused by tidal currents, which don’t occur on the Great Lakes. Undertows take people under, whereas rip currents carry people away from shore.

Rip currents result when water rushes offshore in a narrow channel. These currents can extend 1,000 feet, reach 100 feet in width, and travel up to 5 mph. This is slower than you can run, but faster than you or even an Olympic swimmer can swim. They are most prevalent after storms; some lasting a few hours, some (especially on the oceans) permanently.

Agencies Battle Rips

On a national basis, Sea Grant is active in providing specific information about how swimmers can get out of rip currents. In cooperation with the U.S. Lifesaving Association, the agency kicked-off a campaign at the end of May during Beach Safety Week, which featured a nationally-televised news conference, brochures, beach signs, and a rip current science workshop.

Locally, the impact of Matthew Rheaume’s death in a Lake Superior current rippled through many agencies working to prevent drownings – from the City of Duluth Parks Dept. to the Coast Guard, fire department, and sheriff rescue squad. The city has since posted beach safety signs along the main road on Park Point. Minnesota Sea Grant plans to distribute national Sea Grant campaign materials locally when the water warms near the end of June.

On a Great Lakes level, several beach safety-related groups gathered in April for a Great Lakes Rip Current conference in St. Ignace, MI. The groups heard the latest research on rip current behavior and about public safety and education efforts conducted in Great Lakes beach communities. Several Minnesota representatives attended, including Sea Grant staff, and fire and sheriff department personnel.

During the conference, presenters tied increasing problems with rip currents in the Great Lakes to lower water levels and climate fluctuations. Engineering structures, seiches, and temperatures can also effect rip currents. Researchers are working on mathematical models that can predict rip currents and on developing an accurate Great Lakes rip current forecasting system.

Dave Guenther of the National Weather Service described the wind and wave conditions associated with several Great Lakes rip current deaths. He said that the rapidly increasing wave heights of Great Lakes storms often catch swimmers by surprise. Guenther presented a case study of the weather conditions the day of Rheaume’s death, citing the high winds and waves, along with a possible seiche, as factors contributing to rip current formation.

The day Rheaume died, six other people were rescued on Park Point, including Junior Lessard. Lessard is a hockey-playing student at the University of Minnesota Duluth who, had he not been rescued by another swimmer with a boogie board, may never have gone on to win the coveted Hobey Baker Memorial Award and sign a million-dollar contract with the Dallas Stars hockey team.

Illustration of rip current escape technique: The current is narrow and flows straight out from shore. Simply swimming parallel to shore a short distance is enough to escape the current and swim diagonally back to shore.

Survive a Rip Current:

  • Don't fight the current.

  • Swim parallel to the shore to get out of the current. Rip currents are rarely more than 30 feet wide.

  • If you can't escape, float calmly until the current dissipates, then swim diagonally back to the shore.

  • If you need help, call or wave for assistance.

Aerial photograph of rip current: swirling murky water extending perpendicular to shore.

Recognize a Rip Current:

  • Murky water from sediments stirred up by the current.

  • Different waves - larger and choppier.

  • Foam or objects that move steadily offshore.

"I was swimming my hardest, trying to get back to shore and not going anywhere," said Lessard. "I felt hopeless. It was like slow motion. I was thinking about everything: my family, my hockey…." After struggling for 10 minutes, he was rescued. Lessard grabbed the boogie board and was towed to shore where he collapsed, throwing up blood. He was then taken to a local hospital and treated for four hours before being released. It took him more than three weeks to regain his strength.

The experience changed his outlook on life. Little things don’t bother him anymore. "I just go to practice and I’m happy to be there. After the lake incident, you realize what a great opportunity you have," said Lessard.
To make materials like boogie boards available for such emergencies, some municipalities have included them in lifesaving stations. At the Great Lakes conference, representatives from the Mackinac County Water Safety Review Team described how they developed lifesaving stations along U.S. Highway 2 at the northern end of Lake Michigan. The stations include a boogie board, life vests, and a ring buoy. Solar-powered cell phones connected to the 911 system are posted nearby. Businesses donated funds for some of the materials and supplies.

"Rip currents aren’t frequent, and they shouldn’t keep folks from enjoying the beach," said Schomberg, "but they do happen, and we need to make sure people can recognize the danger signs and know how to respond so we can avoid another tragedy."

For more information, visit the national rip current Web site, ripcurrents.noaa.gov, order a rip current brochure (item CH 1) from our online form or contact Jesse Schomberg at (218) 726-6182 or jschombe@umn.edu.

By Marie Zhuikov
June 2004

Return to June 2004 Seiche

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