Over the past few years, a pretty vibrant dialogue going on worldwide related to rip currents and how to best keep people safe around them has been taking place. As you all (hopefully) know, a rip current is a channel of water moving away from shore resulting from waves, current and bottom topography.

In Galveston, they mostly occur near structures like piers or jetties.

In Galveston, the United States and in Australia, about 80 percent of all surf rescues occur as a result of rip currents, so they’re the big dog when it comes to beach safety education.

In my work here and in my volunteer roles as president of the United States Lifesaving Association and the secretary general of the Americas Region of the International Lifesaving Federation, I’ve been involved in quite a bit of this dialogue.

I also had the privilege over the past decade or so of representing the association in a task force that worked with the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration, specifically Sea Grant and the National Weather Service, to come up with and improve upon a public education campaign about rip currents.

A Texas A&M University researcher named Chris Houser did a pretty interesting study in Galveston and elsewhere. What was so groundbreaking about this particular study is that it wasn’t just focused on how rip currents work (where they exist and under which conditions, how fast they go, etc.).

He focused instead on something lifeguards care deeply about — what are peoples’ perceptions of what areas are safe and/or dangerous and how do we get the word out most effectively. He came up with some very interesting conclusions.

In a nutshell, only 13 percent of beachgoers that were surveyed could correctly identify a rip current. Eighty-seven percent of people preferred to swim in areas that had no waves breaking because they thought they were calm and safe. These areas are calm because no waves are breaking as a result of the rip current pulling the sand out. Also, only a third of those interviewed felt they could swim over 100 yards.

He mentioned that Galveston provides a lifeguard service that basically keeps people away from rip currents, but with most people visiting the beach not knowing which areas are safe and not being able to swim well, we definitely have our work cut out for us.

Last year alone, we moved around 200,000 people away from dangerous areas, the majority of which were rip currents near the groins and tidal currents at the San Luis Pass and the Galveston Ship Channel.

All this boils down to some very simple advice for you and your family when you visit the beaches in Galveston. Swim near a lifeguard so you have a trained set of eyes to catch it if you get too close to dangerous areas. Also, observe signs, flags, and warnings put out by the Beach Patrol and the National Weather Service.

Wishing you all safe holidays from everyone at the Beach Patrol.

Peter Davis is chief of the Galveston Island Beach Patrol. The views in this column are Davis’ and do not necessarily represent those of the Beach Patrol, Galveston Park Board of Trustees or any other entity.

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