Think like a lifeguard this summer

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At the beach, lifeguards see far too many patrons who are clueless and incurious about the challenges the ocean presents. Swimming conditions can vary widely with the winds, tides and weather, so ask the guards about them. Waves are another complication, with the potential to injure even strong swimmers and bodyboarders. If your kids ride, jump or dive through waves, you should be nearby. Such is their power that lifeguards regularly spot swimmers who unknowingly cross the line between fun and recklessness, spared a head or spinal injury only by a lucky beach landing. You and your children should play it safe in active surf.

And, yes, ask about rip currents, which, as we saw on the local news last weekend, are often overhyped. But they are real and, in unguarded water, can be deadly. They are sometimes mistakenly called rip tides — they are much more localized and irregular than tides — and most aptly nicknamed sucks, because that is almost always the way victims describe what happens to them.

Powerful, fast-moving, outgoing columns of water are created by waves that wash up on shore and follow the path of least resistance, often just a low spot on the beach, as they flow back out. A suck forms in the same way that water from a heavy rain drains from several directions into a gully, and it’s about the same size, but has much more power. Most rips are no more than a few yards wide, but it is futile to swim against them. No Olympian would stand a chance.

Rip currents churn up the ocean bottom, so one of their telltale signs is water that’s more sandy brown than blue. The other sign comes too late, the frightening feeling of being pulled swiftly out toward the shipping channels. If you suddenly find yourself moving the wrong way fast, think of the gully. You can’t win this battle head on, but there is a way out, to either side, where the water isn’t moving. Relax, or at least try to avoid panicking, and swim to one side, parallel to shore.
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