Signs will warn of dangerous rip currents, the first place to look for a dive instructor

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Posted by on June 23, 2005 at 00:38:28:

For the first time, lifeguard agencies in San Diego County are installing permanent signs at the beach to warn people about rip currents.

It's part of a nationwide effort to increase public knowledge about a common killer of unwary swimmers. Distribution of the signs began this month, in advance of the peak season for beach visitors.

"It's a phenomenal idea," said San Diego lifeguard Lt. John Greenhalgh, who picked up 75 of the metal signs yesterday from the California Sea Grant office in La Jolla.

Altogether, 300 of the signs half of them in Spanish are being distributed to lifeguard agencies that patrol the county's 76 miles of coastline, said Sea Grant spokeswoman Marsha Gear.

The English signs read: "Break the grip of the rip." They feature an illustration showing how a rip current works.

The signs, which cost $5,000 to produce, resulted from collaboration between the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the United States Lifesaving Association. Sea Grant is affiliated with the administration.

These groups want to reduce the average 100 rip-current drownings along America's beaches each year.

An estimated 80 percent of all lifeguard rescues along the U.S. coastline and the Great Lakes involve swimmers caught in rip currents, the association reported.

Rip currents act like aquatic treadmills, pushing swimmers away from shore and inducing fatigue.

Among deaths caused by the elements, rip currents were second highest in the United States from 1994-2003, exceeding the yearly average of fatalities from floods (84), tornadoes (58), lightning (53), hurricanes (18) and shark bites (0.6), according to the administration.

The highest cause is heat, which kills an average of 237 people per year.

Rip currents at sandy bottom beaches can arise at one location and then disappear in a matter of hours as sand shifts around the ocean floor, forming channels that funnel water out to sea.

Lifeguards call these "flash" rip currents and say they're more prevalent during high tide.

Piers, jetties and deep depressions in rocky reefs create permanent rip currents that remain stationary.

"The majority of rescues we make are caused by rip currents," said Oceanside lifeguard Sgt. Brandon Stone. His agency plans to install the sis at lifeguard stations and jetties.

The city of San Diego plans to put up the signs at its lifeguard stations and beach entrances before the Fourth of July. There are no restrictions on installation, said Gear from Sea Grant. Lifeguards can install the signs wherever they think the public will benefit from seeing them.

Since children are the most vulnerable to rip currents, Greenhalgh said, he'd like to see the signs posted at elementary schools, especially campuses in beach communities.

Years ago, San Diego lifeguards used to mark rip currents on the beach with red flags. The city's legal advisers ordered an end to the practice, saying it increased the city's liability, Greenhalgh said.

Veteran Imperial Beach lifeguard Don Davis said the worst rip current in his area is south of the city's boundary at the mouth of the Tijuana River.

Immigrants crossing the U.S.-Mexico border have drowned while trying to cross the river's mouth, which drops off abruptly and can sweep a person three-quarters of a mile out to sea when a big swell is hitting the coast, Davis said.

People have plenty of folklore and misinformation about rip currents, which are often wrongly called rip tides.

"There used to be stories about how rips can take you miles offshore," said Bill Schmidt, a former researcher at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in La Jolla.

Schmidt's research, using drifters instruments that measure the speed and direction of ocean currents found that a rip current's force dissipates quickly beyond the zone where the biggest waves are breaking.

Because that distance is rarely more than a few hundred yards, swimmers simply need to stay calm and swim parallel to shore to free themselves.

"If you just don't panic, you don't have to worry too much," said Schmidt, who now works at the Naval Research Laboratory in Mississippi.

Chris Brewster of San Diego, president of the U.S. Lifesaving Association, said most lifeguard agencies in America were formed during the last century in efforts to prevent drownings caused by rip currents.

Despite this history, lifeguards have been frustrated over the public's lack of basic knowledge about them, Brewster said.

"Even fairly experienced beachgoers and educated people can have problems identifying where rip currents are and get into serious problems," he said.

Such was the case in May 2004 when Jeff Baize of Sherman Oaks was walking along Black's Beach when a panic-stricken woman begged him to save her drowning boyfriend, who was caught in a rip current.

Baize, 46, a certified scuba diver and former surfer, stripped off his shoes and shirt and dashed into the surf. He helped the man stay afloat until another swimmer brought a boogie board.

After three other rescuers made it safely to shore, Baize struggled for nearly 20 minutes to swim out of the rip current. Baize nearly drowned, he said.

"It's something I'll never forget for the rest of my life," he said. "I have a new respect for the power of nature and these rip currents. Those things are monstrous."

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