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And how to stay out of it.

OCEAN SAFETY - BASIC RULES OF THE OCEAN

Whether youíre surfing, swimming, sailing, kayaking, diving, or just walking near or around the waters edge, three basic ocean rules should always be observed.

Rule 1:   Donít ever turn your back on the ocean!

Every year along the Central Coast of California someone dies by simply being washed in! The water temperature ranges between the low 40ís degree f. to the high 50ís throughout the year along the central coast. Add ten degrees for the southern coast and subtract 10 degrees for the northern coast. Swimming without a wetsuit will give you between 30 - 45 minutes, depending on your body-fat content, before the first stage of hypothermia sets in.

Rule 1 is the most important of all and should be followed religiously.

Rule 2:   Before approaching the water, watch it for awhile.

Observe the conditions for at least 15-30 minutes, especially if your unfamiliar with the area. This is very important when the surf is active. Summer south swells can get large and powerful, it is not uncommon to see 30 minutes between monstrous sets. Between the 30 minute sets, the ocean can appear tranquil enough to take the baby for a stroll along the water's edge.
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Rule 3:   Answer these questions for yourself before venturing into the ocean:

  • How high is the water mark along the beach or rocks? (Whatís wet, whatís not.)
  • How large and how close together are the waves within a set of waves?
  • What is the interval (or lulls) between sets of waves?
  • Which way is the tide going and what is the extreme high and low of the day?
  • How will the tide changes effect the shoreline? Will I have to swim to leave this beach at high tide?
  • Are there currents and how strong are they?
  • If I get in the water are there safe exits out of the water?
  • If Iím alone, are there others in the area that would see or hear me in the water.
    (We suggest using the buddy system, whenever possible.)
  • Do I have the physical ability and skills to handle the ocean conditions?

Knowing the answers to these questions becomes exponentially critical as the swell size increases. As the swell increases in size, the dynamics of the ocean become stronger resulting in strong currents, riptides and sometimes undertow. These currents are important to learn about as they can easily kill you if youíre ignorant of their dynamics and how to save yourself in the event you get in one.

OCEAN CONDITIONS

RIPTIDAL CURRENTS:

Riptides are very common to California beaches and usually occur along shorelines with sand or mud bottoms.

The strength of riptides can vary but tends to be stronger as the swell size increases and/or large differences in high and low tides.

What is a riptide?

A riptide is an in-shore current running out to sea. A riptide occurs when wave/tidal action creates a buildup of water between the shore and a submerged sandbar offshore. When the excess water reaches a maximum volume it finds a weak spot or low point in the sandbar and rushes out through that low point and quickly dissipates in the deeper water just outside the submerged sandbar. The strength of the current can vary from weak to very strong and can form suddenly. The trick to being aware of them is to look for their tell-tale signs.

Signs of a riptide:

Look for channels of water that generally extend from the beach out to sea through the wave zone. Generally, the wave activity is less in these channels but can still be present and strong. The water in a riptide has a ruffled texture as it forms. The current is formed by the water rushing over the sandbar towards shore then running parallel to the beach from opposite directions merging in these channels of slightly deeper water. Once in the channel, the water heads out through the low spot in the submerged sandbar on its way out to sea diminishing in strength as it dissipates just beyond the submerged sandbar in the deeper water.

A riptide is much like a short stream or river flowing out to sea. It generally follows a course or path, has a current and slows down considerably and eventually dissipates in deeper water.

Riptide currents become increasingly stronger as the swell size increases.

Riptides can also be useful to surfers when paddling out to a beach break peak. A surfing buddy of mine refers to riptides as The Highway Out of Town.

How to get out of a riptide:

Once you find yourself in a riptide, the primary rule to follow is: Stay Calm and Donít Panic! Tell yourself I will be OK and I will get out of this!

The next step is to swim parallel to the beach. This will put you into the wave action, which may appear to be the wrong thing to do BUT thatís what you want! The wave action will help push you to shore once youíre out of the current.

If you find the riptide is strong and the next thing you know the beach looks far away. Just relax and allow it take you, but continue to swim parallel to the beach until youíre out of the riptide current area.

Imagine you fell into a river. You know you canít swim upstream and get out where you fell in. So what do you do? You swim towards the bank - sideways to the current and you know you will get out at a point somewhere downstream. Similarly, in a riptide youíre flowing downstream out to sea. What do you do? Swim sideways to the current until youíre out of it, then swim in to the beach.

Summary

Follow these steps when you find yourself in a riptide:

  • Remain Calm, Donít Panic
  • Relax and swim parallel to the shore.
  • Once out of the riptide current, swim to the beach.
  • If you canít get out of the current, relax, let it take you further out until the current begins to dissipate. Swim parallel to the shore until youíre completely out of the riptide current, then swim to shore.

LONGSHORE CURRENTS

Longshore is a perfect name for this type of current because it actually runs along the shore. This current is created as waves wash over a submerged sandbar and the water flows parallel to the beach always leading into a riptide area. In fact, longshore currents are closely associated with riptides in that they feed the rip.

Generally, the water is deeper just a few steps off the dry sand as the current tends to cut a path along the shore. The depth can range from a couple of feet to over your head. Longshore currents are normally easy to get out of if you turn in the direction of the current and angle your swim towards the beach. Remember, as the swell increases in size, the Longshore and Rip currents become a stronger force to deal with. Always be aware of the ocean conditions and your ability to safely deal with them.

In most occurances, swimmers or boogie boarders with no swimfins are the ones who get into trouble. If you canít get out of the longshore current and end up in the riptide remember, donít panic! Youíll be OK if you relax and follow the rules for getting out of a riptide.

UNDERTOW CURRENTS

Undertow currents are rare occurrences in Central California, but they do exist, so it's important to know what to do should you find yourself caught in one.

Myth:

An undertow is a current that sucks you down from the surface.

Fact:

An Undertow will form when the conditions produce a steep bank of sand to the waters edge and a decent swell is running. The shorebreak waves break and sweep up the embankment with force and then sweep back towards the breaking waves. If you are standing on the steep embankment, the incoming water can easily reach waist deep and sweep you off your feet as it pulls back towards the ocean. Generally, it rolls you like a rag doll into the next incoming wave. By this time, youíre caught in a chain reaction of being rolled in and out by each incoming shorebreak wave, generally along the bottom.

What to do:

Your gut reaction is to reach the beach, stand up and run. But the first thing to do is to get out of the situation you're in. To do this, swim out past the shorebreak waves. Look up and down the beach for a possible safer exit. Signal someone on the beach if you can. Watch for a lull and swim to the beach. Stay on all fours, donít stand up but dig in and crawl hard for the top of the sand embankment.


If you pay attention and habitually follow a few simple rules, the ocean can be a fun place. But, if you let your mind wander, or ignore basic safety, it can be deadly.

STAY SAFE AND HAVE FUN!

 



CALIFORNIA SPORTS PARADISE
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CALIFORNIA'S ON-LINE MAGAZINE FOR OUTDOOR SPORTS


 
 
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