Water Safety on the Great Lakes: How to identify a rip current

Rip currents are common on the Great Lakes and knowing what a rip current looks like can help save your life.

When talking about water safety, the question always arises—how do you identify a rip current? Rip currents tend to form in sandy beach areas that have exposure to large areas of open water where the wind can generate significant waves over this large distance. In these rip current prone areas, you can observe a series of sand bars that run parallel to the shoreline. It is in these areas, where water builds up like a dam behind these sandbars as the wind blows waves onto the shore.

When enough water and pressure builds up, the water escapes back lakeward as it rips a channel through the sandbar. That is why these types of currents are called rip currents. A ripImage of a rip current in Lake Michigan at Berrien Springs. current is essentially a narrow river that heads lakeward that can trap swimmers and pull them out away from shore.

An area where a rip current develops can be identified by what appears to be calmer water where no waves are breaking. This is the area where the water is headed lakeward. These types of conditions entice swimmers, as it appears to be calm water when in fact it is a river headed away from the shoreline. In these rip current areas, you may notice floating debris headed away from shore or a band of discolored water.

Rip currents are not stationary and can develop in different places along a beach. This is because the sandbar structures parallel to the shore are constantly changing with disturbances caused by the wave action.

To escape a rip current,

  • Stay calm;
  • Don’t fight the current;
  • Escape the current by swimming in a direction following the shoreline. When free of the current, swim at an angle–away from the current–toward shore;
  • If you are unable to escape by swimming, float or tread water. When the current weakens, swim at an angle away from the current toward shore;
  • If at any time you feel you will be unable to reach shore, draw attention to yourself; face the shore, call or wave for help.

For more information on water safety and dangerous currents, visit the Michigan Sea Grant website and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) National Weather Service website for video and media clips of rip currents and how to escape from a dangerous current when swimming.

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