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How to survive a riptide or an undertow in the ocean

Updated on September 22, 2010
Daytona Beach, Florida
Daytona Beach, Florida
Portuguese Man-of-War Jellyfish
Portuguese Man-of-War Jellyfish
Angry Sea
Angry Sea

How would you like to spend your entire summer in Daytona Beach, Florida?

For all intents and purposes it was the perfect summer for a 16-year old boy.

This was a time when everyone went to drive-in movies. The drive-ins were perfect for young couples to get in a little necking and it was an inexpensive way for young families to relax in the cool of the evening while their kids played together out front.

Beach parties were expected to go into the wee hours of the morning.

I have pleasant memories of getting up with the sun and then hopping into the refreshing surf and then into a seaside freshwater shower to complete the perfect awakening.

Jellyfish hurt

It was a bad year for jellyfish. In this case it was Portuguese Men-of-War (physalia pelagica). I learned that if you popped them with a stick and some of it landed on you it stung worse than a wasp and for a whole lot longer.

Toward the end of the summer, as hurricanes began to approach, riptides began to appear without warning.

My Uncle Phil had told me that if you ever get caught in an undertow that the best thing to do was nothing. He said that if you got caught you should just relax and hold your breath and hang on until you eventually wound up on the sandbar that created the suction.

Easier said than done

I don’t remember the name of the big hurricane that summer but I remember the perfect bodysurfing waves that it created. I would swim out as far as I dared and could usually find a big enough swell to ride back far enough and long enough to make it worthwhile.

On one of my trips in, as soon as I finished the run and my feet hit the sand everything went crazy. I didn’t realize it at first, but I was being dragged out into the Atlantic Ocean by a monster riptide. It felt like I was a rag doll that had been grabbed by an angry youngster and was being flung repeatedly against a wall.

Don't fight it

I don’t have the words to describe how powerless I felt. There was literally nothing I could do to save myself. Just when I thought I was a goner, I remembered what my uncle had said a few days earlier. I quit fighting it and relaxed every muscle in my body that I could to conserve what little breath I had left.

The tide was rolling me along the bottom like a piece of tumbleweed. I remember my face being smashed against the sand, tearing the skin and then my knees, then my face again. Just when I thought my lungs would burst I felt everything start to slow down. The water was no longer swirling me around. I was able to push up off of the bottom far enough to get that first life-saving gulp of air.

I swam a few yards parallel to the coastline until I found the sandbar just like I had been told. I walked along the spine of the sandbar until I was finally close enough to shore to swim the rest of the way.

This was another one I have to chalk up to God’s providence, because for a while there I wasn't sure that I would live long enough to be able to tell this story to anyone else.


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    • Peggy W profile image

      Peggy Woods 7 years ago from Houston, Texas

      Extremely useful advice which could just be life saving if this reaches enough people. Good video you included. Hitting useful and up! Thanks!

    • katiem2 profile image

      katiem2 7 years ago from I'm outta here

      Rips and Under toe worries me to death when it comes to my children. Thank you for the helpful tips as when you stand there before that huge vast big beautiful sea or ocean you realize your powerless to it unless you have great helpful tips as you've pointed out here. Peace :)

    • Dolores Monet profile image

      Dolores Monet 7 years ago from East Coast, United States

      Rips can be so scary. As an avid ocean swimmer, I've been in a few, but keep a sharp eye on the surf at all times. My best advise is to keep your eyes on the water, you can easily spot a rip current and can feel one begin to start. It's easiest to get out of it before you get into trouble. The worst thing is to panic. I've pulled or called people out of rips, and some of them seem to become agitated at the help. They fight the idea of swimming parallel to the beach.

    • saddlerider1 profile image

      saddlerider1 7 years ago

      I was caught in a Rip tide in Hawaii but fortunately I broke loose by swimming out of it, but it was sure scary. People no doubt have to be very careful, the ocean is a force bigger than us in so many ways. Thank you for the share and that added video was very informative, I rate this UP.

    • sheila b. profile image

      sheila b. 7 years ago

      I hope many people read this article. When I lived at the beach the newspaper ran such articles - after someone had drowned in a riptide.

    • DiamondRN profile image

      Bob Diamond RPh 7 years ago from Charlotte, NC USA

      Thank God for that stranger, Kammy.

    • kubth profile image

      kubth 7 years ago from UK

      I got caught in a riptide as a small child, but fortunately was gathered up by a kind stranger who took us both to shore. I guess we were lucky the current wasn't stronger, otherwise he may not have been able to reach us.