|Beating the Rip: How to Avoid Drowning in the Surf|
Every day at surf beaches around the world, thousands of swimmers are caught unawares by rip-currents (also known as rip-tides and undertows). One moment you are enjoying a swim, the next you feel yourself being irresistably carried out to sea to an uncertain fate. It can be a very scary thing.
Sadly, some of these swimmers will drown. Don't let this happen to you or someone you know. With a little knowledge and a cool head, tragedy can be averted.
Notice that with all that water being pushed on-shore by the waves, the water has to get back to where it came from somehow. It flows like a river parallel to the beach for a distance. When it meets another such current going in the opposite direction, it makes a sharp turn back out to sea, particularly when there is a low point in the sandbank.
Often this outward bound current is gentle, and not a problem for swimmers. Sometimes though, the pressure between these two opposing currents can be quite strong, making a combined current that flows faster than the fastest human can swim.
Don't panic. This is so important. Panic makes you fight the current and exhaust yourself. In a crisis of any kind, staying calm let's your survival instincts tell you how to survive. On the other hand, panic paralyses the mind and body, often sealing your fate.
For strong swimmers, go with the flow of the current but also across it at a 45 degree angle. While this will take you further out from the shore, it will also bring you to the breaking wave zone. From here you can get back to shore.
For weak or exhausted swimmers, still go with the flow and don't panic. Swim parallel to the shore until you reach the breaking wave zone. From here you can either swim ashore, or raise your arm clear of the water to signal the life-saver / life-guard.
Use mental imagery to see yourself safely back on shore. Tell yourself this will happen. Keep telling yourself. Don't give up hope. Engaging your rational mind like this is a good way to keep the urge to panic under control.
Myths about Rips. Rip-currents don't pull people under. People drown because they panic, become exhausted and are not a strong enough swimmer to at least tread water.
Rips look like bands of choppy, darker colored water. Sometimes you will see foam or debris being carried seawards through a break in the waves.
People certainly seem to enjoy swimming. It seems to come naturally. We also seem to prefer living close to shores and beaches. Waterfront real estate prices atest to this. Of all the primates, humans are by far the best swimmer. Most primates do not swim at all.
The Aquatic Ape Hypothesis (AAH) is one explanation. First proposed in the 1960's by Oxford University Professor of Zoology Sir Alister Hardy, the AAH says that the physical characteristics that distinguish us from our nearest cousin apes suggest we evolved in and around the beaches of lakes and oceans, not on the dry savannah or in the forest, as with the other apes.
In support of this, Sir David Attenborough points out that humans have a remarkable ability to swim and dive. We are relatively hairless with skin well supplied with sebacious glands which make it waterproof. Our babies are fat and instinctively know how to hold their breath underwater. Humans have something called the "Mammalian Dive Reflex". When water colder than 21 degrees Celsius touches the face, the blood flow is concentrated to our heart, brain and skeletal muscles. The heart rate slows, and the blood flow to the extremities is limited. Marine mammals like seals, otters and dolphins have the dive reflex too. You can read more about it here.
I love swimming in the ocean, having grown up surfing the beaches of the Gold Coast in Queensland, Australia. It is one of life's great pleasures -- simple and free, one with Nature. There is an energy in the ocean that sustains me as a kind of soul food. But I've learned that the ocean demands respect. You must know how to swim before venturing into it past wading depth.
I've been swept out in rip-currents several times and found myself way off-shore, treading water and jumping at shadows, thinking they were sharks. Its funny, I never used to worry about them until I saw the movie Jaws (thanks Spielberg). My partner and a friend were once caught in a rip and were out there for about an hour before they were able to make it back to shore. They didn't panic, and so they survived. And I've seen people who didn't make it.
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