Research, Science & environment

Expert on rip currents warns of dangers at San Francisco’s Ocean Beach

Coastal oceanographer Francis Smith takes to the waves to demonstrate the dangers at California beaches

Wearing a wetsuit and carrying a yellow flotation device, Francis Smith scanned the surf at Ocean Beach last Friday and then hit the waves, demonstrating for local TV cameras the perilous rip currents that await summer visitors to what some consider the most dangerous beach in America.

Smith, a coastal oceanographer who works in the Department of Geography, sees lives lost every year when families and tourists flock to the beaches, expecting to frolic in the surf and instead getting knocked off their feet and in minutes swept out hundreds of feet from shore.

Earlier this month, a swimmer drowned at Baker Beach, while last year a San Francisco Fire Department rescue boat flipped in seemingly calm seas off Ocean Beach, spilling seven firefighters into the water. Two had to be rescued by offshore fishing boats.

“The current is so strong that people can’t swim against it and get pulled out from shore,” he said. “Even Olympic swimmers will get pulled out.”

With reporters in tow, he pointed out how incoming waves are deflected by the beach into an underwater channel that funnels the water back out to sea, taking unsuspecting swimmers with it. Then he and buddy Xander jumped into the water among local surfers to show how to swim parallel to the beach to escape a rip current, and then leisurely stroke back to shore.

Concerned that the word was not getting out this year regarding the dangers at Ocean Beach, and the dangers of rip currents in general, Smith worked with the campus media relations office to invite local media to Stairway 17 off the Great Highway to talk about the dangers. Smith has held briefings in the past at this Ocean Beach access point, which is adjacent to one of the beach’s permanent and dangerous rip currents, in order to publicize the dangers of these currents and how to escape them.

The United States Lifesaving Association, which has designated this week, the week before Memorial Day, “National Beach Safety Week,” estimates that more than 80 percent of lifeguard rescues at the country’s surf beaches involve people caught in rip currents.
Smith has had experience with rip currents since he was a teenage surfer in the 1970s and a San Francisco lifeguard in the 1980s, when he trained many Ocean Beach lifeguards. He went on to write a Ph.D. thesis at Berkeley on the rip currents at Ocean and Baker beaches in San Francisco and Stinson Beach in Marin County.

“A rip current is a small coastal stream that flows out through the surf zone,” Smith said. “When you come to the beach you see surf breaking and then you’ll see a calm spot,. That is usually where the rip current is, between the breakers. It’s deceiving because that area is the calmest and seems like a good place to wade. But that area is the dangerous place. Where you really want to go is where the waves are the biggest.”

He recommends that people enter the water only if they are good swimmers and have studied the surf beforehand, and if they know how to escape from a rip current: Swim parallel to the shore until free of the current, then paddle back toward the beach.

And he hopes everyone has a fun but safe time at the beach this summer.

National Beach Safety Week is designed to make citizens aware of the need to be safe while in and near the water, with special emphasis on the hazards associated with rip currents. Their objectives stress:

  • Learn to swim.
  • Swim near a lifeguard.
  • Swim with a buddy.
  • Check with the lifeguards.
  • Use sunscreen and drink water.
  • Obey posted signs and flags.
  • Keep the beach and water clean.
  • Learn rip current safety.
  • Enter water feet first.
  • Wear a life jacket.