As soon as my daughters were old enough to wade into the ocean past their knees, my wife and I developed a drill to mark the start of every beach vacation.
"What do you do if you are caught in a rip current?" we would ask them.
Every year, the girls dutifully repeated the answer: "Don't fight it. Swim sideways along the shore until it stops pushing you out to sea. Then swim back in or, if you get too tired, just float until someone can reach you."
Rip currents are powerful channels of fast-moving water that can carry a swimmer seaward at up to eight feet per second. Some people inaccurately use "rip current" and "rip tide" interchangeably, though the latter is a separate phenomenon. Typically, rip currents do not pull swimmers under the water, but instead rapidly pull them away from shore. Swimmers exhaust themselves trying to get back in, and often drown when they become too tired to continue struggling. According to the National Ocean Service, rip currents account for 80 percent of water rescues on beaches and cause an estimated 100 deaths in the U.S. annually. (1)
Both the National Ocean Service and the United States Lifesaving Association have one more addition to the rules I had my daughters recite as kids: If you see someone trapped in a rip current, do not go in after them. Get a lifeguard's attention, call 911 or throw something buoyant, like a lifebuoy, if possible. But remember that many people drown in rip currents while trying to save someone else.
This scenario played out tragically last month in Jacksonville Beach, Florida. When a 6-year-old was pulled away from shore, her father, 28-year-old William Moritz, went in after her. While he succeeded in saving his daughter, Moritz lost his own life in the process. (2) Many fathers would do the same without a second thought. But the incident demonstrates how quickly a rip current can pose mortal danger to swimmers of any age.
There are a lot of days beachgoers can simply look at the surf or feel the wind and know it will be a bad day for rip currents. In our area they usually occur when the wind blows onshore, which is to say when it blows toward the beach, resulting in rough, choppy surf. Rip currents can be especially bad near piers, jetties and other obstructions to the natural flow of the water.
There are no piers or jetties on the particular stretch of Florida beach my family frequents, but the prevailing winds frequently blow onshore. There are a lot of rippy days.
My wife and I were especially careful of these days when our girls were preteens. In fact, when our younger daughter, Ali, was still very small, my wife and I would call to one another, "I'm on Ali," meaning that parent would shadow the little one while the other could concentrate on wading or collecting shells with our older daughter, Jess. Every set of beach safety instructions emphasizes the importance of a not swimming alone as an adult, after all. One parent's full attention per kid seemed about right.
Still, even the most observant parent can miss something. Once, my family was at a heated public pool in Florida during a stretch of chilly weather that made the ocean too cold for swimming. I was concentrating on Jess and didn't notice that Ali - then about 3 years old - had jumped into the pool right behind me. Although she already knew the basics of swimming, she started to flail and struggle. I had no idea it was happening. After a minute or so, my wife noticed Ali's distress in the midst of the crowded public facility and yelled at me. When I turned to find Ali struggling to keep her nose above the water's surface, I am not sure which of us was more startled or upset.
We love the water in my family, as you can tell. The girls are grown now, and both of them are highly capable swimmers. These days, I like to take my inflatable Sea Eagle kayak through that same surf - but not on days when it is windy, the surf is rough and the chance of encountering a rip current if I get tossed overboard is high.
You can love the beach, but you also have to respect its power, understand how it works and try never to let your guard down. Tragedies like the death of William Moritz remind us all how quickly a day at the beach can take a terrible turn.
1) National Ocean Service, "What is a rip current?"
2) The Washington Post, "'His daughter was his world': Father dies trying to save his 6-year-old from riptide"