Though summer doesn't officially begin -- astronomically speaking anyway -- until June 20, for many in the U.S., the Memorial Day weekend marks the beginning of the season. That's certainly true in West Michigan. And nothing says summertime like a visit to the beaches along Lake Michigan. With temperatures this weekend soaring to the upper 80s and lower 90s, there will be more than a few people thinking about going for a swim in the big lake. More people swimming in the lake means more people at risk from rip currents near shore.
Basically, a rip current develops when the normal wave pattern/movement near the shore is interrupted. Over time, and depending on the strength of the wind, the interrupted current of water, typically moving at an angle to a sand bar which runs parallel to the shoreline near the beach, can create a break in the sand. The water moving away from the beach as part of the normal wave pattern can become concentrated in the break, creating a strong current moving away from the shore. The current is too strong to fight, and swimmers caught in it will find themselves being taken away from the beach.
The typical response is to swim against the current. But that won't work, and eventually, even the best swimmer will become fatigued, too weak to continue treading water. In the worst case scenario, the swimmer goes under water, and without someone nearby to help, will likely drown.
To escape the current it is essential to swim parallel to the beach, which is perpendicular to the rip current. Eventually, this tactic takes the swimmer out of the current, and out of danger. As part of our Marine Forecast this summer, Severe Weather Center 3 meteorologists will let you know when the rip current threat is a concern. For more on beating the rip, check out this site from the National Weather Service: http://www.ripcurrents.noaa.gov/