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Avoid rip currents to stay safe on Pinellas beaches

CLEARWATER — Two drownings last week in northern Pinellas County served as grim reminders that some of the country's most picturesque beaches also can be deadly.

Largo resident Isam Rizkallah, 58, jumped from his boat June 10 near Honeymoon Island to rescue his dog. Three days later Gainesville, Ga., resident Ryan Terry drowned 30 yards off Clearwater Beach, near Idlewild Street. In both cases, officials cited strong currents as a factor in their deaths.

The full moon and subsequent new moon last week made high and low tides more exaggerated, said Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission officer Baryl Martin. That creates bigger currents.

Clearwater Beach recreation supervisor J.P. Atherholt said beachgoers and boaters need to be aware of rip currents, or strong channels of water that flow seaward through a gap in a sandbar. Neither recent drowning occurred in a particularly dangerous spot, he said, but rough conditions can make even tame areas deadly.

"It's important to know that a rip current can happen at any time," Atherholt said. "It can be strong or it might just be a small current."

They are difficult to spot with an untrained eye, so it is best to ask lifeguards about conditions and check nearby signs before getting in the water.

Boaters should don life jackets before jumping off. But there is no need to go chasing after pets, said FWC spokesman Gary Morse. Dogs are strong swimmers and will usually come when the owner calls.

Should a swimmer be stuck in a rip current, it's important not to panic and waste energy. Swim parallel to the shore to escape from the current before turning in toward the sand.

"Even if you don't swim, just float and relax," while awaiting help, Atherholt said. "They're not going to take you all the way out to the Gulf of Mexico."

Reach Julie Kliegman at jkliegman@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3401. Follow @jmkliegman on Twitter.

Signs warn beach goers walking out to the dog beach area of Honeymoon Island about strong currents after a man drowned trying to rescue a 5-year-old girl.  [Jim Damaske | Times]

Signs warn beach goers walking out to the dog beach area of Honeymoon Island about strong currents after a man drowned trying to rescue a 5-year-old girl. [Jim Damaske | Times]

Avoid rip currents to stay safe on Pinellas beaches 06/16/14 [Last modified: Monday, June 16, 2014 11:27pm]
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