New theories on rips

Smooth water (circled) indicates the presence of a rip at St Clair Beach, in Dunedin. Photo by...
Smooth water (circled) indicates the presence of a rip at St Clair Beach, in Dunedin. Photo by Craig Baxter.
Scientists curious to know how quickly ocean rips move once threw lifeguard Nathan Hight into a vicious current at Ngarunui Beach, Raglan.

Mr Hight had a GPS locator strapped to his helmet and was covered with electrodes and sensors. He looked like an astronaut, his colleagues said.

During the experiment, Mr Hight encountered what was known as a "pulsing rip". It appeared quite suddenly at a spot that had been calm only moments before the rip developed.

Several sets of large waves pounded the popular surf beach and when the pulsing rip sucked Mr Hight out to sea, he was travelling at four metres a second.

"Much, much faster than anyone could ever swim," former Niwa oceanographer Giovanni Coco said.

Dr Coco has dedicated his research to predicting rip formations.

Dr Coco's test gave hard figures to a fact that was well known - it is impossible for a recreational swimmer to compete against a rip.

Rips are the biggest killers in New Zealand waters.

Of the 14 people who have drowned in New Zealand since Christmas, at least five died after being caught in rips, with several more close calls.

Swimmers die because they exhaust themselves fighting against the current.

For decades, rips were thought to wash straight out to sea like a fast-moving, straight-sided river, and this influenced the safety tips given to swimmers.

New studies show rips might actually double back towards the beach, and if swimmers simply tread water they should be returned to shore.

To test the belief rips retreated from the beach in a straight line, Californian oceanographer Prof Jamie MacMahan, from the Naval Postgraduate School, placed 30 GPS-holding, floating devices within a surf zone at a Monterey beach.

He found the locators floated out with the rip then followed a horseshoe direction back to the beach, and concluded rips acted like giant, eddying whirlpools with 80% to 90% of the currents remaining within the surf zone.

"I have jumped in a lot of rip currents all over the world and always end up back onshore," he said.

As a result of his research, he gave this advice to US media: "If you swim parallel to shore - the traditional recommendation - you have a 50-50 chance of swimming into a strong current and becoming exhausted.

"But if you don't fight it and just tread water, you have an 80% to 90% chance of the rip current conveyor belt returning you to shore in three to six minutes. Many experienced surfers know this, and even talk about 'riding the rip'."

He said treading water in a rip could actually be a calm experience.

The MacMahan study has been noted, but not adopted by water safety officials in New Zealand.

The safety advice given by Surf Life Saving New Zealand for someone caught in a strong current is not to panic, to ride the rip out to sea, then swim parallel to the beach for 30m to 40m to escape it.

New Zealand experts say the American study shook up traditional knowledge, but it is too early to change our rip safety guide.

Niwa coastal oceanographer Terry Hume, who has mapped hundreds of New Zealand beaches for hazards, said: "The advice was not a lot of use if a rip is running parallel to the beach."

But, he stressed, Prof MacMahan's theory was still being tested, and Surf Life Saving's official advice remained sound.

Besides, local research showed rips came in many forms - some currents did wash straight offshore like a conveyor belt, while others were highly complex.

A colleague of Dr Coco's, Karin Bryan, said other factors such as tides, La Nina and El Nino cycles, and changing seabeds meant there were no fail-safe scientific guides to rip currents.

She said beachgoers could note that if waves were approaching shore in an oblique way - with crests colliding or arriving at the beach at an angle - then more complex, eddying rips might be expected.

Surf Life Saving New Zealand general manager of programmes Brett Sullivan said rips, and the fast-moving water around rip currents, were responsible for a very high proportion of rescues on surf beaches, of which there were 1400 a year.

Statistics showed the at-risk group was males, Maori or European, aged between 15 and 24.

Despite scientific breakthroughs on rip formations, the central part of the safety advice remained the same: "Don't panic".

Mr Hight, who now runs a consultancy company, said last week, "The stress comes when it's not anticipated." Having swum in hundreds of rips, he said being washed 200m offshore was a far better strategy than fighting an invisible current.

"Of course," he pointed out, "you can always just swim between the flags."

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