Riptide rule #1 Always float, never fight the current

Guest Writer

On June 9, just as Tropical Storm Cristobel drove past Longboat Key, 900 miles to the West,  a 70-year-old man drowned in a riptide off of The Inn on the Beach at Longboat Key Resort.

He and his wife swam out to a sandbar in the Gulf. She recalls getting swept up in a strong current that pulled them further out. Four people attempted to rescue the struggling swimmers with no success. A rescue fireboat arrived at 7 p.m., pulling close enough to throw a safety ring to the wife who was fighting to stay afloat. Two firefighters jumped in the water and found the man floating on his back, his head up, unconscious and pulseless. They pulled the woman out of the water. Another fireboat then picked up the unidentified man. Both were transported to Sarasota Memorial Hospital, but sadly, the man did not survive.

Earlier that same day, a father and his two-year-old son were quickly pulled offshore by another strong riptide. Though coastal storm surges reached three feet or more, an off-duty police officer, Ermir Vila, dove to the rescue and pulled the exhausted, and barely responding, father and son to shore. According to LBK Fire Chief Paul Dezzi, the boy, and perhaps the father, would have drowned without the floaties that his mother smartly put on him before he went swimming.

A couple of weeks earlier, on May 24, ten-year-old Irys Wright was caught in a riptide with some other children off Siesta Key. Sheriff’s deputies were able to rescue a woman and two children who were treated at the scene, but Irys Wright didn’t make it. Her parents have set up a GoFundMe Page to help with funeral costs..

Her 4th-grade teacher Amy Rietschel wrote, “We have lost a precious angel. I am at a loss for words as Irys is very special to me and truly an amazing little girl.”

On March 6, LBK Deputy Fire Chief Sandi Drake rescued a man and his teenage son who were swimming off the Longboat Key Club and Sands Point Condos. Drake drove to the beach and saw the father and son stranded on a sandbar struggling to get to shore. The father had gone out to help his son, but got stranded himself. A fireboat was on the way, but Drake took matters into her own hands. She swam out wearing a life preserver and gave it to the teenage boy to swim in. She then helped the father get back to shore.

There are no lifeguards on Longboat Key’s ten miles of beach. For the most part the waters are calm and there are no strong currents, making it a safe beach for even young children. But Chief Paul Dezzi warns in certain spots — near inlets, piers and sandbars — the currents can be fierce. Wind is a major factor. New Pass, on the southern end of LBK, seems to be an especially dangerous spot with many drownings and near-drownings. During tropical storms and hurricanes — when surfers rush out — the waters can be especially treacherous.

There are about 50 calls for marine rescues per year in LBK and response times for marine rescue can be up to 30 minutes. The fire department is going to utilize its jet ski on the Gulf beaches to get to people in trouble faster.  Riptides kill about 100 people per year in the United States. And riptides are responsible for 80 percent of lifeguard rescues at beaches with breaking waves.

A few years ago Roberta Ursrey was at a Panama City Beach with her husband, sons, and nephews. She looked up and saw her sons floating out to sea screaming. Other family members swam to the rescue, but they could not fight the powerful riptide current.

Jessica Simmons, another beachgoer, saw the family in distress, according to a News Herald reporter, and decided, “These people are not drowning today.”  Simmons organized a human chain of 80 people stretching out over 100 yards to the distressed and exhausted swimmers. This human-linked chain miraculously pulled the family to shore safely.

Surfers love riptides (which are really rip currents). Instead of paddling out through the waves to get to the breakers, they study the water and find a riptide and ride it out, saving themselves a lot of effort.

In East Hampton many beaches without lifeguards have round life preservers with 100 foot lines posted every 100 yards to rescue swimmers caught in a ripetide.

Another danger on LBK beaches is that two-thirds of all catastrophic neck injuries (apx. 800 annually) occur in open-water areas, not swimming pools. And no, the sand under the water is not soft and forgiving.  Chief Dezzi says, please remember that you can become a quadriplegic in just less than two seconds at a beach, simply by diving head-first into waist-deep water.

Rip currents: Secret To Survive — Float Don’t Fight

Rip currents account for more than 80% of near drownings in our waters, according to Fire Chief Paul Dezzi. While rip currents are very strong, they are  narrow, do not last long, and will not travel very far “out to sea”. Look out for a gap in the waves, and a channel of particularly choppy water with seaweed or other debris visibly moving away from the beach, says Dezzi.

If unexpectedly caught in a rip, don’t panic Float.. Breathe deep and gently swim parallel to shore. Don’t fight the current – it will wear you out even the strongest swimmers. Riptides move about eight feet per second and the fastest human swimmers can go only about 5 feet per second. If you try to fight it, even Olympic swimmers will lose.Many would-be rescuers drown trying to save people in trouble. If you see someone in trouble try to steer them to swim sideways.

Dezzi says, many beaches across the United States are adopting a universal flag system. Learn the flag system at your beach, and always remember, “When in Doubt, Don’t Go Out!”

Common flag system for ocean beaches:

Double Red- —Water Closed to Public

Single Red—High Hazard, High Surf and/or Strong Currents

Yellow—Medium Hazard, Moderate Surf and/or Currents

Green—Low Hazard, Calm Conditions, Exercise Caution

Purple—Dangerous Marine Life

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