Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Caution: Riptides and Currents (and how to deal with them)

The ocean (and rivers, for that matter) can throw a variety of hazards at you, not the least of which is the force of moving water in the form of riptides and other currents. I have been caught in both, and they are not to be taken lightly. Keeping your cool, avoiding any additional challenges, and getting yourself out of the predicament as soon as possible should be your goals. Prior planning can help, and here are a few suggestions to help you avoid or deal with being caught in one of these hazards:
Riptides are not always visible, but sometimes you can see (and avoid) them 

I typically run into these while surfing my waveski. Riptides are formed when ocean water is piled up in a spot where it has nowhere to go, and it needs to find a path back out to sea. This can be at the corner of a cove, next to a sandbar, in-between cross-currents, or, frankly, anywhere along a beach where the shape of the bottom funnels water into a current that moves along, or away from the shore. Riptides can be extremely powerful. If you're a bather, they can take your feet out from under you, and carry you rapidly away from the shore. If you're on a paddle craft, they can change your direction in unexpected ways, and potentially swamp your boat. We've (almost) all heard the advice to swimmers: don't swim against the rip, swim perpendicular to it, or let it take you out the back of the current, then swim perpendicular to it. This is easier said than done, and it's hard not to panic if you're caught in a rip, but you must stay as calm as you can if you want to get out of it. If you're on a paddle craft, rule# 1 is not to leave your craft. Even if it's swamped, it will still have some buoyancy, which can help keep you afloat, and help to save your energy. Float with the rip until you are in calmer water, then address any water in your cockpit. Once you get back in/on your craft, look for a safe place to land - where you can finish bailing out, and get yourself and your gear back in order. Rule# 2 is a prophylactic - always, always, where a PFD (lifejacket) - if you get separated from your 'yak, you will still have buoyancy to help you keep your head above water, and to keep your energy up while you deal with getting out of the current. Rule# 3 is to hang on to your paddle. Your paddle can provide a little bit of additional buoyancy, but, even better, it can help you swim out of the current. Slide your grip very wide on your paddle shaft, and use the blades as part of your swim stroke; in essence, you are giving yourself giant hands. This will propel you through the water with much less energy than swimming alone, and, coupled with the buoyancy of your PFD, will keep you skimming along the surface, with much less drag than if you were deeper in the water. Rule# 4 is to use waves to your advantage. As I mentioned earlier, I mostly run into riptides while surfing my waveski. These can be handy escalators out through the surf zone to pick up another wave, but if you wipe out in the middle, and lose your craft (I have), you can get stuck between the incoming surf, and the outbound rip current. Save your energy for the next wave, then try to use its energy to get you out of the rip. Sometimes, it can get you close enough to shore to get your feet down - so you can walk your way out. Use the paddle technique previously described to amplify the effectiveness of the wave force. This has helped me on a few occasions. Also, pay particular attention when the overall tide is outbound - this can add power to the rip, and make it even more menacing. Check out this helpful entry on the Beachapedia page.
Learn to see the current flow when you look at the water (looks like it's headed to the right in this image)


Currents can happen anywhere. A rip is a type of current, but so is river flow, tidal flow, differences in speed between 2 sections of water, increased flow speed at choke points and around obstacles, etc. Currents can be large and surprisingly powerful, and can carry you long distances from where you were headed, and sometimes toward danger (like active boat lanes). In most cases, paddling against a current is fruitless - or, at least, a huge expenditure of energy. It's much better to work with a current than against it. I've been caught in currents that didn't give me much of a choice but to cross them as best I could (read my post The Mouth of the Danvers River & Nearby Islands), until I reached flatter waters. Try to angle across the current to the nearest calmer water - even an eddy will do. This will give you a chance to consider a strategy for getting out of the area. Recognize that the current will carry you even while you are paddling across it, so look ahead to where you might end up, not at what's directly in front of you. You've encountered this phenomenon if you've ever paddled through an area with moored boats, and found yourself crossing behind a boat when you were sure you'd be in front of it (read my post Paddle Trip: Pavilion Beach to Sandy Point). That's OK, so long as you safely get across. Try to estimate the speed and strength of a current before you attempt to cross it; use objects like buoys or rocks to see how fast the water is moving. If the current is close to shore, sometimes it's just easier to get out of your 'yak and drag it along the shore.

Currents can form waves - even waves big enough to crest. They can seriously put you in a hazardous scenario. If you get caught in a current, keep your cool - you'll need it. If you capsize, stay with your boat and hold on tight - you're in for a ride that may carry you some distance. Remember, though, if you're with with your kayak, you may at some point get the opportunity to get back in it, and to paddle to a safer spot. Plus, you'll be more visible to other boaters, or to rescuers if you're next to a larger object like your kayak. 

The first step in dealing with riptides and other currents is to learn to spot and avoid them. They won't always be directly visible, but the conditions that generate them might be. Watch for land features, narrowing of waterways, rivermouths, obstacles - anything that might speed up a section of water relative to what's around it. Be aware of tidal conditions, and remember that tide changes can cause currents that can help or hinder you. It's sure easier paddling back home with an inbound tide pushing you from behind, then it is fighting an outbound tide. Work with the water, not against it - in most cases, the water will win.

Stay safe, go with the flow, and keep your cool. Being more in tune with the water will help, and will make you appreciate its power and its beauty.

TB on the Water                                            

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