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Lifeguards Caution Rip Currents Likely To Worsen In August

Originally Posted: August 06, 2008

Aaron Boyd

Strong rip currents have been causing trouble and even claimed lives off the shores of Hamptons' beaches. Surf conditions are posted daily on patrolled beaches and on the government rip current website. Photos by Aaron Boyd

East Hampton - Rip currents have been particularly dangerous this summer season, according to chief lifeguard John Ryan. When a sandbar breaks under the pressure of churning water, the void creates an aggressive vacuum that pulls currents and swimmers out to sea. East Hampton lifeguards have recorded over 250 rescues this season, all of which were precipitated by unexpected rip currents.

The only safe beaches, according to Chief East Hampton Lifeguard John Ryan, are those
protected by trained watchful eyes.

"The surf has not let up," Ryan explained. Surf conditions are rated daily and posted by flag colors on the town's beaches - red flag for dangerous conditions, yellow for caution and green for safe swimming. Ryan's staff has only recorded "maybe six green days in July," and he expects the August storm season to make conditions worse.

Identifying rip currents and taking appropriate action when swept up in one can mean the difference between life and death. As undercurrents roll over the top of sandbars, the water swirls into an eddy, producing a trough that breaks down a section of the bar. As the section erodes away, water receding from the shore funnels through the gap creating rip currents that can overpower even the strongest swimmers.

As the rip current begins to form, the water becomes murky with a cloud of churning sand and the waves crumble across the top, rather than breaking over a hollow crescent. Soft spots along sandbars are most susceptible to withering into dangerous currents.

Safe Swimming
If you find yourself caught in a rip current, the most important thing is not to panic, according to Ryan. "Once someone panics, it's a matter of seconds before they go under," he warned, "That's why they call [the rip currents] drowning machines."

The best advice for surviving a rip current is to follow
the sweeping circular motion back to shore.

Ryan suggests swimming with the currents, as the great circular motion will sweep out into calmer waters. Once past the high-pressure areas, it is easier to swim parallel to the beach to where the tide drifts safely back to shore.

Ryan also counseled against swimming near jetties, where sweeping side-currents suddenly make sharp, powerful turns that can trail far off into deeper waters.

Certain beaches may be safer as well. The Peconic Bay area is not troubled by rip currents, however, strong winds have had a tendency to push rafts out into the bay.

If you're looking for the full magnitude of the ocean, some options along the south shore are better than others. "Don't swim at unprotected beaches," Ryan cautioned, "It doesn't matter if there are a hundred people on the beach - who is watching you?" Beaches protected by lifeguards are equipped with trained eyes to monitor the waters. From their tall perches, lifeguards' increased field of vision can also help them spot strong rip currents as they form, helping them identify trouble areas and exercise due caution.

"The surf has calmed down a bit" since the weekend according to Ryan, though he expects this is the calm before the August storms roll in.

(Check daily surf zone forecasts for Long Island under the Upton, NY section of www.ripcurrents.noaa.gov/forecasts).

Calm seas have been the exception to the rule on East Hampton's ocean beaches this summer season.

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