Local Lifeguards Warn Of Rip Current Dangers

Former 10News Anchor Carol LeBeau Demonstrates Rip Current Hazard

Former 10News anchor and frequent ocean swimmer Carol Lebeau dove into a rip current to show 10News how to get out safely.

Wearing a light-weight wetsuit and swim cap, she prepared to dive into the surf along south Mission Beach.

“The ocean is not to be messed with,” she said glancing at the waves rolling in. “In a confrontation with the ocean, you will lose.”

Lebeau, a former anchor at 10News for 28 years and daily ocean swimmer, has experience with rip currents.

“If I can recognize it, I can use it as a way to get out; it’s like a free ride through the breakers, so that’s the good news,” she said.

The bad side of rip currents is that they are the biggest danger for beachgoers who unaware or inexperienced. They are the primary cause of rescues, according to San Diego lifeguards. In 2009, lifeguards made 4,666 rescues; 74 percent were due to rip currents.

Because rip currents are expected to be worse this summer than normal, 10News asked Lebeau to demonstrate the power of the currents and what to do when caught in one.

For safety, lifeguard Ryan Foster accompanied Lebeau into a strong current found just north of the jetty.

From shore, Sgt. Casey Owens noticed the distance that Lebeau and Foster travelled within 60 seconds of entering the rip current.

“They’re not swimming at all; they’ve doubled their distance just by floating in the water,” Owens said.

Lebeau was surprised by how quickly she was pulled by the current out past the breakers.

“Oh, my gosh, we have been pulled out a ways,” she said.

Demonstrating what to do, Lebeau waved a distress signal with one arm. She then turned north and swam parallel to the shore in order to get out of the trouble spot.

Rip currents form in deeper pockets along the shore, and they’re noticeable from the shore if someone has a trained eye. Lifeguards look for areas where waves do not break, due to the deeper sand floor.

Forecasters said the strong El Nino weather ripped up the shoreline and made rip currents more prominent this year.

Parents are often caught off guard because the area of the rip current is often much deeper than the sand bar that surrounds it.

When Lebeau and Foster walked straight into the rip current, they went from water that was waist-deep to water that was over their heads within one step.

“It just starts dropping off,” explained Owens.

Lebeau swims almost daily in the ocean and said she can understand why so many people who are pulled into a rip current panic.

“If you’re not used to the water and all of a sudden you realize how far away you are from the beach, that panic is going to set in,” she said.

Lifeguards said panicking is dangerous because it can cause people to choke or swallow water and they might exhaust themselves before getting out of the dangerous pull.

Something else people should not do is try to fight the current, and 10News asked Lebeau to demonstrate why.

Instead of turning north and swimming parallel to the shore, Lebeau tried to swim her way out the rip current by turning directly back towards shore.

“It’s like swimming on a treadmill,” she said.

She used her strongest strokes to swim against the rip current, but she didn’t get any closer to the shore.

“No matter how hard I swam I looked up and the beach was the same distance,” she explained.

She never was able to make it back to shore that way. Foster is one of the only lifeguards who can do it without flippers. Even the strongest swimmers are not match for some rip currents.

Rescue statistics show that the group most likely to need rescuing is boys ages 10 to 19. Men aged 20 to 29 make up the second likeliest group to get in trouble. Lifeguards said that’s because they tend to take more risk and under estimate the danger.

On average, there are about 5,000 rescues at San Diego beaches each year. Typically there are 1 to 2 drowning cases each year, with the majority in unguarded areas.

The locations of rip currents shift throughout the day, but lifeguards typically know where the trouble spots are. They said visitors to the beach should ask the lifeguard if there are any dangers and which spots to avoid before going into the water.