MANATEE — Rip currents can be so strong that Manatee County lifeguards often jump in them to get the propulsion they need to reach a distressed swimmer.
Rip currents, also known as rip tides, are so fierce they can — and do — carry swimmers away in waist-high waters.
Hundreds of rip currents form along Manatee’s shoreline daily, although most pass harmlessly and unseen by swimmers, who rarely know the tell-tale signs.
But the tragedy these unseen killers can leave in their wake is real.
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In less than two weeks, three people have died in Manatee County waters because of rip currents.
Two members of the Pardo family from Lutz drowned Thursday while standing in waist-high water on a beach head at the north end of Anna Maria Island, just off Sycamore Avenue, where there is no lifeguard on duty.
On July 29, Terry Cox, 50, drowned when he was apparently swept under by rip currents while wade-fishing off the southern shoreline off the Intracoastal Waterway.
Pardo family members said the rip tide they experienced dragged them under the water suddenly, and rapidly carried them away from shore.
“We don’t want people to think, ‘Oh, they were too far out, that couldn’t happen to me,’ ” Al Pardo said after the death of his mother, Josefina Pardo, 71, and an uncle, Gerado Hernandez.
Pardo told his story to Blake Medical Center staff.
“It happened so suddenly and there were no signs or postings alerting us to the danger of rip currents in the area,” Pardo told Blake officials.
Josefina’s husband, Braulio Pardo Sr., told Blake officials that he was close to death just after the rip current struck. He was exhausted and couldn’t have lasted much longer when two young women, a mother and a daughter, and a young man helped drag him to shore on a small raft.
“I want to know their names and be able to thank them,” Pardo Sr. said from his hospital bed. “They helped save my life and the lives of my family by their courage.”
‘Rips’ rip the sea asunder
More than 100 drownings occur every year in the United States because of rip currents, according to the National Weather Service, and more than 80 percent of beach water rescues are a direct result of the phenomenon.
Manatee County’s nine lifeguards, led by chief of marine rescue Jay Moyles, are constantly watching swimmers to see if they are strong enough to handle a rip current.
That’s one way they guard against a force of nature that can occur anywhere at any time.
But knowing what to do if you are caught in a rip current is the best way to survive.
“They can pop up anywhere,” Moyles said. “There are some areas that are common for rip currents to occur, due to the formation of the beach itself. But, essentially, rip currents can occur wherever there is a sandbar or man-made structure coming off the beaches.”
The dynamics of a rip current are this: wind and water push water up onto the shore. The water rushes back out, but is trapped against the sand bar. The water finds a weak spot and, suddenly, explodes through, propelling thousands of gallons of water in a jet that can run from 25 to 100 yards.
“The rip current is a way of balancing the water that has been held up on shore,” Moyles said.
Although they form every day, the chance of formation is greater when it is windy, when there is a tropical depression in the Gulf of Mexico or when there is a westerly on-shore wind, said Mike Clay, a meteorologist with Bay News 9.
“It’s a shame that so many people get killed,” Clay said. “If you are standing on the beach and the wind is in your face, there will be rip currents, and the stronger the winds, the harder the rip currents.”
A rip current is easily identified, said Moyles. It makes the water dirty.
“When you have thousands of gallons of seawater rushing through an opening trying to go seaward, it gets dirty,” he said.
Rip currents are so dirty that swimmers who pass through them find their swimsuits filled with sand and shells from these mini-explosions.
Another key fact: A rip current is in the shape of a mushroom.
The “neck” of the rip current is the jet, like a mushroom’s stem, while the “head” is the outflow on both sides farther out.
Remembering this shape could save your life, Moyles said.
Go with them
The secret to surviving a rip current is to swim sideways through the neck or ride with the neck. Never try to swim back up the neck toward shore.
The rip current will let you out if you swim parallel to the shoreline, but even an Olympic swimmer couldn’t swim against the current, Moyles said.
“If you feel yourself being pulled out, do not fight that current,” he said. “If you are too tired to swim, you should relax, stay afloat, wave and call for help.
“If you are in an area with no lifeguard, you should swim lateral to the shore and you will exit the rip current.”
“The reason people get in trouble is they try to swim against it,” Moyles added. “You will be pulled backwards. People get tired very quickly and slip below the surface.”
— The St. Petersburg Times contributed to this report.