Break the grip of the rip

Signs warning swimmers of dangerous currents, like this one found near Station 25 on Sullivan's Island, are found on in many areas of high risk in the Lowcountry. (Brian Troutman/WCIV)

By Dave

CHARLESTON, S.C. (WCIV) -- Winter and early spring temperatures ran well above average this year in the Lowcountry, and because of that, Atlantic Ocean water temperatures are well above average too. With the combination of those two factors, swimmers and surfers are heading to the beaches and into the water a little bit earlier.

When many beach goers think of the hazards associated with entering the ocean, things like stingrays, jellyfish and sharks come to mind.

They neglect to prepare for rip currents.

As many as 100 people per year, worldwide, are estimated to be killed from drowning in rip currents in oceans and even large lakes.

So what exactly is a rip current?

Quite simply, it is a narrow channel of water moving quickly away from the shoreline -- like a river. The channel forms a rip in the sandbar where the waves break. The danger element comes when a swimmer gets caught in this rushing water and is transported to depths reaching over that person's head.

The first instinct is often to swim directly back toward the beach and get into shallow water. This effort proves futile, because rip currents can move up to eight feet per second. It's faster than an Olympic swimmer. The best advice for escaping safely is to not panic, swim parallel to the shore and not back toward it and swim back to the shore once you are out of the channel.

Most people that drown do so from tiring while thrashing against the force of the current and slip below the surface.

There are other things you can do to stay safe, like identifying a rip current before swimming or wading in the ocean. It looks like a channel of choppy water moving away from the coast, usually taking along with it things such as seaweed or sea foam. Simply stay out of that part of the ocean, move several hundred yards in either direction up or down the beach before taking a dip.

Another way to keep out of danger is to avoid the ocean when conditions are favorable for rip currents. The National Weather Service issues forecasts for beach conditions roughly mid March through October when the water is warmer. Each day will feature a Low, Moderate, or High risk for rip currents. During High and Moderate risk days, usually strong and onshore winds, along with increased wave heights make it more dangerous to enter the water. In a High risk situation, no one should head into the water.

Safety at the beach is key, prepare ahead of time to stay out of dangerous situations. Rip Current Awareness Week will be held June 3-9, 2012.

* Dave Williams received a B.S. in atmospheric science from The Ohio State University. Before joining ABC News 4, Dave was just up the road at WBTW in Myrtle Beach. Armed with a wealth of experience forecasting the weather in the Palmetto State, Dave is a member of the National Weather Association, American Meteorological Society, and holds a Seal of Approval from the NWA.