Clear skies, blue water and warm weather make for a good day at the beach this time of year. But swimmers need to keep an eye out for dangerous currents that can sweep them out to sea, tire them out and, ultimately, drown them. Rip currents are the most well-known of these potentially deadly streams. They drag swimmers out to sea, killing about 100 people each year in the United States. Swimmers in the Tampa Bay area are more likely to encounter longshore currents, which run parallel to the beach, but come with their own dangers. "These are just as dangerous when they hit a fixed object, such as a groin or jetty, and the current heads out to sea, dragging a swimmer with it," said Joe Lain, who headed Clearwater's Beach Safety Department for more than 20 years. Here are some ways to stay safe.
Know the water
High winds associated with cold fronts this time of year allow longshore currents to form along beaches.
"When you go to the beach, check the status board on the lifeguard tower, which will detail any potentially dangerous conditions," Lain said.
On Florida's Atlantic Coast, where east winds pile water up on the beach, this is prime time for rip currents.
"The water gets trapped inside the sandbar and looks for the lowest point to flow back out to sea," said Bob Maler, chief of Miami Dade's Ocean Rescue Department. "This current will flow just like a river. You can't swim against it."
Keep your cool
Most drownings occur when the victims panic, tire themselves fighting the current and cannot stay afloat.
While local beaches seldom experience the dangerous rip currents that plague the East Coast, strong tides at the mouths of passes can be just as dangerous.
If you are caught in a current, don't fight it. Keep your composure and swim parallel to shore until you feel the current slack. Then swim to the beach.
Most danger areas, such as Fort De Soto's Bunces Pass, have signs that warn against swimming.
Swim near a lifeguard. The chance of drowning at a beach that has no lifeguard is five times greater than the chance of drowning at a beach patrolled by certified lifeguards.
According to the United States Lifesaving Association, the chance of drowning at a beach protected by USLA-affiliated lifeguards is 1 in 18 million.
Never swim alone. Most drowning deaths involve solitary swimmers. Practice the buddy system.
Contrary to myth, rip currents don't suck people down into the water. And "rip tides'' and "undertow'' are just mistaken names for rip currents.