Life Saving Victoria (LSV) this morning hosted Associate Professor Rob Brander (aka ‘Dr Rip’), from the University of New South Wales, for a presentation on rip currents (the number one hazard on our beaches). The audience included LSV staff, members of the Play it Safe by the Water committee, Emergency Management Victoria and visiting lifesavers and scholars from Sri Lanka and Bahrain.
“Rip currents were accountable for taking many lives in Victoria this summer, so it’s really good for us all to get a more technical understanding about this issue,” says Dr Bernadette Matthews, LSV’s Principle Research Associate. “Rips are a hazard not just in Australia, but globally.”
To sum up the problem, Professor Brander gave a description of rips to be strong, narrow, seaward flowing currents, often confined in channels, that flow from the shoreline through the surf zone. They exist as a mechanism for transporting water, brought to the beach by breaking waves, back offshore.
He described them as ‘Rivers of the Sea’ and said one of the dangers is that they can initiate near the shoreline and slowly make a person drift gently towards the stronger rip current, then quickly offshore, out to sea, past where the waves break.
His research into rip currents began in 1993 when he started his PhD looking into measuring rip currents.
“Up until that point, I’d assumed Australians understood how rips and beaches worked,” says Professor Brander. “But, locals at the beach told me they didn’t think about the science of the ocean or how rips worked and that’s when I became more interested in why so many people were drowning in rips.”
Rescues of people saved from rip currents in Australia add up to 80-90% (greater than 10,000) of rescues each year, as well as the preventive actions of lifesavers and lifeguards warning people near rip currents to move.
Through his research, and collaboration with the Naval Postgraduate School of California’s testing of GPS Drifter devices, findings uncovered that rips behave differently – so safety messages of swimming parallel to the beach to escape a rip had to be re-evaluated.
“Sometimes the rips currents will take a person beyond the surf zone, but sometimes they are circulatory, so the message is now to assess what you’re doing to escape a rip and if it’s not working, try something else,” says Professor Brander. “In all cases, don’t panic.”
His advice is to take five minutes to look around at the ocean conditions when you first get to the beach, just as you would look left and right before crossing the road.
Because of the complexity of spotting a rip for members of the public, as well as the ever-changing nature of the rip currents along our coastline, communicating rip information to beachgoers has proven difficult.
“My opinion is that most Australians know about swimming between the red and yellow flags, but there’s not enough of them – we just need more flags,” says Professor Brander. “And more seasonal lifeguards/lifesavers on our beaches.”
In the audience at Professor Brander’s presentation was also veteran Sri Lankan journalist Namini Wijedasa, who travelled with a group of Sri Lankan lifesavers and scholars to Victoria for a knowledge-exchange on water safety.
“In Sri Lanka, the message to children is that if they go to the beach, just don’t get in the water,” says Ms Wijedasa. “After Professor Brander’s presentation, I now understand why and also what a sideways current is, which I have struggled to get out of in the past.”
Ms Wijedasa writes for The Sunday Times back in Sri Lanka, which is the largest independent English-speaking newspaper in the country. She aims to take the water safety messages she’s learnt in Victoria back to her country to spread the learnings as widely as possible.
Multilingual resources can also be found at beachsafe.org.au/surf-safety/multilingual, with information on how to spot and how to survive a rip current go to: https://beachsafe.org.au/surf-safety/ripcurrents
The National Geographic (Australia) channel recently aired a rip current documentary you can view here: http://www.nationalgeographic.com.au/tv/rip-current-heroes/
For further information please call LSV media on 0411 193 962. Video footage available upon request.