Media advisory: UC Berkeley rip current expert warns of Ocean Beach dangers

Video of Francis Smith explaining rip current safety is available on UC Berkeley’s YouTube channel. To obtain broadcast-quality video, contact Roxanne Makasdjian: (510) 642-6051,

ATTENTION: General assignment editors, reporters

WHAT: An expert on ocean rip currents will hold a media briefing and demonstration of their dangers at San Francisco’s Ocean Beach, one of the most dangerous beaches in the United States. As the May 28 Memorial Day weekend approaches and people flock to the beach, rip currents pose a special hazard for waders, swimmers and surfers. One teenager is missing and presumably drowned after being swept off his feet earlier this month at Ocean Beach, despite signs warning people to stay out of the water.

The United States Lifesaving Association, which has designated the week of May 21 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.

WHEN: 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. Monday, May 21

WHERE: Parking lot across from the Beach Chalet restaurant, just south of the intersection of Lincoln Way and the Great Highway, San Francisco. This is near stairway 17, which is adjacent to one of Ocean Beach’s permanent and dangerous rip currents.

WHO: Francis Smith, a geographer at the University of California, Berkeley, and an expert on the rip currents at Ocean Beach. Smith, who in the 1980s trained many Ocean Beach lifeguards and went on to write a Ph.D. thesis at UC Berkeley on the rip currents at Ocean and Baker beaches in San Francisco and Stinson Beach in Marin County, will demonstrate self-rescue techniques that can be used by those caught in a rip current.

DETAILS: Smith, a coastal oceanographer, has had experience with rip currents since he was a teenage surfer in the 1970s and a San Francisco lifeguard in the 1980s. Smith has held briefings at Ocean Beach in the past to publicize the dangers of rip currents and help prevent drownings.

One of his main recommendations is to enter the water only if you are a good swimmer and know how to escape from a rip current: Swim parallel to the shore until free of the current, then paddle back toward the beach. He warns that rip currents can dampen the surf, making waves near rip currents look deceptively calm. People planning to venture into the water should study the waves before stepping into the ocean.

VISUALS: Smith will come with explanatory graphics and will don a wetsuit to demonstrate techniques swimmers can use if caught in a rip current.

NOTE: Francis Smith can be reached at his UC Berkeley lab, (510) 643-1834, or via email at