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A silent enemy out there

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It was instinct by now: Shirt off. Buoy on. To the beat of a bass drum in the chest. Lifeguard Mike Bartlett sprang into a wind sprint for the surf, the life buoy gripped like an orange pigskin, his knees pumping furiously until rising water sent him crashing into full-tilt freestyle.

But this time something was different. In his 19 years of patrolling troubled waters, he'd rescued kids, tourists and hombres whose swagger often vanished in 4-foot swells. Now he was at risk.

"On the way out, I had a feeling there was a good chance I would probably be fighting for my own life," says Bartlett, a marine safety officer for the city of Huntington Beach.

Bartlett was the only lifeguard — and person — on the beach. Driving by on patrol this late off-season afternoon in March, he spotted what he thought were five people trapped in a powerful rip current, a fast-moving channel of water rushing offshore. It was the scenario all guards dread and, for all their super lungs, fear: a multiple rescue alone in dangerous water. He radioed for backup and raced into the churning water.

Rip currents, often mistakenly referred to as "riptides," kill more people each year than hurricanes, tornadoes, floods and a whole lot more than sharks. In an average year in the U.S., more than 100 beachgoers drown in rip currents; last year, two people died in shark attacks. Some 80% of the rescues made at beaches in the U.S. are swimmers caught in rips — and California leads the way, with 80% of those, along with 50% of rip-related deaths, according to the United States Lifesaving Assn. Yet this serial ambusher makes few headlines, has never starred in a disaster film and scientists are only now beginning to understand its dynamics.

Bartlett knew all too well what he was up against: long odds. It turned out to be four male teenagers just about his size. "It was really ugly," he says. "The current was like a river, you could not swim in against it, and these four people were not ocean swimmers. I could hear them screaming. I lost visual contact, because I'm going through the surf. I'm looking for the heads and I hear, 'Help! Help! Help!' "

The first swimmer still had some energy, so Bartlett showed him how to get back to shore. He then had to go after the teen's three friends, who didn't have a chance on their own. They were spaced about 25 yards apart, and were frantic in the swirling brown froth that now had control of their lives. Bartlett stroked as hard as he could to the next victim, who was thrashing wildly against the current and getting pounded by waves. The veteran waterman calmed him down, put him on the buoy and looked up to see two heads floating in the distance. They weren't moving.

An invisible hazardLacking the visual terror of funnel clouds and circling dorsal fins, rip currents are a stealth enemy, the killer next door no one would ever suspect. Visible only to the trained eye, they often masquerade as calmer water, where it seems the waves are smaller. Lured in, a swimmer is swept up by the outgoing rush of current, which has flattened the waves in its path.

Even fatal rip incidents seldom generate public attention, occurring as random drownings — one here, one there, without the drama of mass catastrophe. Yet rips are a clear, present danger, accounting for 7,500 of the 9,500 rescues made in L.A. County each year. They can erupt on any beach out of the blue, disappearing as suddenly.

Ranging in size from "finger" rips that barely make it to the first break, to plumes stretching 200 yards offshore, they streak through surf zones all along the Southern California coast.

These liquid tractor beams may be out of sight, but they're not out of mind for those caught in them, since they wreak the most havoc in the heads of their victims. When the surge of water yanks feet off solid ground, swimmers panic and default to the instinctive fight-or-flight response developed to save their hides on terra firma. Some of the body's reactions to the flood of adrenaline and cortisol — hyperventilation, heart palpitation, throat constriction — compound the struggle to breathe just when a swimmer is fighting hardest for air.

Victims flail against the jet sucking them offshore, only to wind up exhausted, swallowing water and going backward into the big breakers.

Rip current survival depends on the unorthodox strategy of nonresistance, the last thing that tends to occur to someone about to become fish food. "It's very counterintuitive. That's why they're so dangerous," says Robert T. Guza, a professor at Scripps Institution of Oceanography who studies rip currents. The solution is to "do nothing or swim sideways," hardly logical when "the water's pulling you out. You want to get your feet on dry ground. You think you can, but you can't."

By swimming parallel to the shore in either direction, most swimmers can escape a strong current within 30 seconds, say experts, because most rips aren't wider than 50 yards, though they can extend 100 yards and more out to sea. If you simply do nothing and go with the flow, 70% of the time you'll wind up being recirculated back to shore, says Jamie MacMahan, a University of Delaware rip researcher who has plunged into many roiling currents to chart their mysterious ways. Floating in a rip off Australia's Moreton Island, MacMahan circled out past the break and back into shore three times in 10 minutes. "If the rip current is such that it will take you outside the surf zone, but not much farther, you will end up back on shore," he says.

Yet the panic reflex isn't always amenable to logic and may be inevitable, according to new research conducted by panic-disorder expert Dr. Donald Klein at Columbia University that suggests panic is a biological response. It's triggered, he argues, by a lack of carbon dioxide in the blood, or in other words, oxygen deprivation, something breathless rip victims have in common.

The risk of frantic behavior led public safety officials in Florida, seeking a slogan to cut down on tourist deaths from rips (18 died in a four-month stretch in 2003), to rule out "swim parallel" or "swim along shore" as too sophisticated. The winner: "Don't panic."

Telltale streaks"The rips are huge on the north side of the pier too. We gotta respond early," exhorts marine safety officer Eric Ching to a high-noon briefing of lifeguards clad in red shorts and white T-shirts outside headquarters in Huntington Beach. Behind him a south swell has kicked up raucous 4-foot waves, and streaks of brown ringed by foam mark the presence of a rip festival.

Huntington Beach lifeguards make 2,000 rescues a year, most of them caused by rips. For Lt. Mike Beuerlein, it's going to be "an all-day assault against rip currents," fought with more than 35 lifeguards, 25 towers, a boat and a roving patrol truck. "You can predict before anybody gets in the water where the activity is going to be, if there's a rip current," he says.

Like private detectives in flip-flops, lifeguards are trained to read swimmers for the clues of inexperience. "We start evaluating them as soon as they walk across the sand," says Beuerlein. "We look at what type of swimwear they have on, what type of flotation they take into the water. Do they have a boogie board, fins, a leash? Once they go into the water we see if they have a strong stroke or a weak stroke, so we know if we need to keep an eye on that person."

Over at Tower 3, an oblivious boogie boarder has drifted into a rip. He's not wearing fins, an immediate warning sign, and has bailed off his board and started swimming, a bigger red flag. Guard Aubrey Panis grabs her buoy and charges into the foaming surf after him. She gets him to move laterally out of the current, but he doesn't want the buoy that the tiny but speedy Panis offers. He probably outweighs her by 40 pounds.

"I told him to stay in closer because next time it could be worse," she says, heaving for breath after the sprint.

The bodyboarder fits the profile of the most frequently rescued here — young males testing themselves, along with people who may have heard about "riptides" but don't know what they are or how to escape them. But with the toll from rips a growing concern, public safety officials and scientists are stepping up efforts to get out the word about this long backwater subject. There's a national public education campaign, "Break the Grip of the Rip," sponsored by the U.S. Lifesaving Assn. and the National Sea Grant College program, and a flurry of research underway.

Lesson one in rip awareness: Don't call them "riptides," or you might find a couple of oceanographers with brass knuckles on your doorstep. Rip currents are not caused by tidal action. They're not undertows, either; they pull swimmers away from shore, not underwater. If you're caught in one in Laguna, you're not going to be making a beeline for Maui. Usually the pull of the rip extends to just outside the last set of waves.

To understand what a rip current is, the best vantage is from the air. Overhead photos of classic rips show a turbulent stream of dirty brown shooting from the shore, spilling into a mushroom-head pattern just outside the wave break. They look like satellite images of rivers pouring café au lait into blue seas, an offshore river that's broken out in the middle of the surf zone.

Color is the main clue to spotting them and heading off trouble. "It will go from the normal blue green to light green and then, as it strengthens, it turns to a brownish color, caused by the sand stirred up off the bottom," says Pat Jones, captain ocean lifeguard for Los Angeles County, based in Santa Monica.

The principle behind rip currents is the same one that sends runoff down mountainsides: Water always seeks the path of least resistance, the lowest point. When the sea is pushed onshore by waves, it has to flow out again. Rips form when the ebbing water finds a depression or channel in the ocean floor or a gap in a sandbar. The water rushes out through these funnels — at speeds as fast as eight feet per second — creating a brown river that latches on to all in its path with a tenacity that inspires awe in those who study them.

"You can look at some rip currents, and it's almost as if they're alive," says Scripps' Guza. "It's this twisting, slithering thing. They're so concentrated and ephemeral."

Rips increase in velocity with wave height, which is why top surf spots like Huntington often come with the biggest rips. That's fine by surfers, who use the rip current as a streaming sidewalk to the outside break. It's not wave stature but variations in the wave break — intense in one area, smaller in another — that drive the current, says MacMahan. A key element of rip formation is its conduit: a depression or channel that funnels out the water. These can be caused by wave action, breaks in sandbars, underwater canyons, piers, storm drains and other unknown factors.

"Everyone's trying to understand why rip channels form," says MacMahan. "There are lots of ideas, but no one has definitively said this is the mechanism. Why is the rip channel so wide or deep? Why do they have spacing?"

MacMahan has spent much of the last few years as a crash-test swimmer trying to get some answers, placing instruments in zero-visibility water in Brazil or fighting for readings in the notorious currents of Monterey Bay, where his work with the Naval Postgraduate School in recent months has quantified some of the dynamics of rip currents in the field for the first time.

Wearing scuba gear and a weight belt to keep from becoming rip flotsam, MacMahan placed 30 instruments into the teeth of currents on rip channels and sandbars in the bay, and was able to chart a key component of rip strength: wave pulsations.

"What we think catches beachgoers off guard is that rip currents are unsteady. They pulsate," says MacMahan. "Waves in nature modulate on a temporal scale, one to five minutes, then they'll increasingly get larger, then they'll decrease. These wave groups cause the rip current to pulsate."

The variance in wave height over a group of waves creates different speeds in the current. As the largest breakers of a set hit and then rush out through the channel, the pull of the rip surges. The maximum velocity occurs with the pulsation from the largest wave as the water suddenly charges back out.

This is what makes rips so deceptive. A swimmer who enters the water during the lull of a set, when the rip velocity is low, can be blindsided as the bigger sets roll in and gush out with a sudden, upending pulse.

Though researchers are learning more about rips, predicting them is a long way off, leaving plenty of work for lifesavers like Bartlett.

Back in that March rip, Bartlett had one swimmer clutching the buoy and two slipping under water. When one of the sinking heads lifted a nose up, Bartlett tore for him. He grabbed the swimmer, who was coughing and wheezing, and had the other victim hold him on the buoy. Now Bartlett had to pull two swimmers through the hammering waves to the last victim who was going down.

"I could literally see his hair floating," recalls Bartlett. "It felt like slow-motion, trying to get out there as fast as I could. The whitewater hit him and he disappeared, and I just went to the spot where I last saw him. I looked down and saw his hair and a hand and just pulled him up by his fingers and got lucky."

While Bartlett tried to keep the three swimmers afloat amid the surf, backup arrived. A rip current was beaten, barely. Two of the swimmers had to be hospitalized.

"Their fate that day was to drown, and I just happened by in the right spot at the right time," says Bartlett.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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