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Summer Safety Series: Dangers of Riptides and Low Head Dams

by Lauren Pope, Staff Writer

Maybe you’ve seen the pictures going around social media showing the wall to wall rip tides in Bay County. The wall to wall riptides send a chill down my spine and trigger some sort of core fear of being swept out to sea, never to be seen again.

Thankfully, a situation like this should trigger a Double Red Flag Warning, which Zachary Fire Captain Chase Lord tells us means that no one should be getting into the water at all. However, if you somehow miss the flags and find yourself pulled out into the ocean, follow the green arrows marked on this image to get yourself back to shore. Basically, once you are no longer being pulled out, you want to swim across the water, parallel to the shore, until you find a place where you can safely swim back to the beach. Whatever you do, don’t try to swim against the rip tide and return back to where you had been before you got pulled up by it. “That will just cause you to become exhausted,” says Captain Lord,  “you want to swim across the water, not against the tide.”

Even without a flag warning, you can often see riptides by standing back from the shoreline.  This image from the NOAA gives you some tell-tale signs of a rip tide. A difference in water color and a change in the wave pattern are both signs that a riptide may be lurking. If you’re swimming in an area with seaweed or other flotsam (we’re looking at you, Pensacola) you can watch how it’s behaving to see if there are any points that it seems to be flying out to sea. Stay away from those points!


Most importantly though, make sure that all children and weaker swimmers are wearing life jackets that are coast guard approved any time they’re playing in open water. Another great tip is to have them keep a boogie board strapped to their wrists so that they can have some buoyancy help to get to a safe swim in location and then make it safely back to shore.



Now that you know how to stay safe in the ocean, let’s talk about staying safe on rivers and streams. Low-head dams look like innocent “steps” in the stream, but they’re so dangerous that experts call them…drowning machines.

These dams rarely serve a useful purpose anymore, and worse still, have often been abandoned by whoever used to own them. There is a concerted effort to find and categorize these dams so that the public can be more informed about where they may be lurking. If you’re interested in participating in this project, or would like to view the map that shows where dams have already been identified, scan the QR code for the Low-Head Dam Inventory Taskforce at the end of the article.

But what makes these dams so dangerous and what should you do if you encounter one that hasn’t yet been logged? The problem is that they create a sort of swirling vortex that traps a person underwater and near the wall of the dam. While a swimmer is trapped in this backwash, he can never quite make it to the surface.  The way to escape this trap is a bit counterintuitive. Just like with riptides, you don’t want to try to get up the same way you came in. Instead, to survive a low-head dam entrapment, you’ll need to do a summersault and then dive for the bottom and swim out under and away from the boil. This graphic helps describe the process.

It is very important that no one attempts to jump in to save someone who has gone under unless they’re aware of the steps that they’ll need to take to successfully escape. More important though, is to make sure that children do not play anywhere near these sometimes attractive “waterfall” water features. The water above the dam is often deceptively calm. That might entice children to splash around in the shallow depths without any thought of the danger that lurks nearby.  If you see anything that looks like a small waterfall, stay away.

The best advice for those doing water sports on rivers and streams is to simply get out and carry your kayak on the shore.  There’s no “safe” way to navigate these dams. Check the low-head dam inventory before going out and, if you see a boil ahead, paddle to shore and walk around it. Remember, it’s much better to spend a few minutes walking on the shoreline than to risk your life trying to navigate dangerous hazards.





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