Rip currents and undertows

The beach season is just upon us and what a season it should be. The heat is here and the swimming season is underway.

The ocean is starting to warm up nicely (the Gulf of St. Lawrence) and will be with us until the end of September. However, one problem on our coasts and beaches can be found. Rip currents (often called undertows) are more common. Why do they come and why are they more frequent in late August?

You may have noticed that the prevailing winds are beginning to shift. They are more common and stronger from the west and northwest.

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There is great fun playing in the larger, crashing breakers, or maybe doing a little body-surfing. Be careful for those breakers that are hitting the beach at a shallow angle instead of directly on. They are the ones that set up the rip currents.

Thousands of tonnes of water crash in on the beaches and of course have to return back to the sea as one breaker follows another. The outgoing water follows the path of least resistance that is found in slightly deeper channels between the sandbars. On a nice summer day, you have waded seaward only to find that after a short distance you were in ankle-deep water on an offshore bar.

Rip currents are more frequent and more dangerous on long, gentle crescent-shaped beaches. Inverness Beach is one of the best examples of such a beach. Small pocket beaches like Chimney Corner and Margaree Harbour with different exposures to incoming waves don’t usually have the same problem. Cheticamp beach is a long crescent-shaped beach but does not face the changing winds and waves in the same manner.

Swimmers who have been caught in rip currents are dragged seaward by the enormous strength of the outgoing currents. The best way to cope with it is to swim with it and then sideways paralleling the beach. Once beyond the breaker zone, the strength of the rip begins to diminish. Many swimmers who have been caught in rip currents are seen on the surface of the water being carried seaward by the power of the current, not being dragged down. To try to swim back to the shore against the current soon tires the swimmer, inviting disaster.

Strong ocean currents are nothing to fool with. They also occur at the mouth of rivers and small tidal openings. Changing tides cause great quantities of water to rush in and out of small tidal openings.

I had the fun of snorkeling at the entrance of a large lagoon near Poirierville a few years ago. I picked up enough welks, moonsnails , razor clams, and blue mussels to make the afternoon very interesting. During the slack of the tide the snorkeling was easy. As the tide changed and the rush of water began to fill the lagoon, I decided it was time to get out of a giant that was much stronger than me.

I often think that a few more photos, diagrams, and maps to assist in the interpretation of natural phenomena could assist tourists as well as locals in getting a better and safer understanding of their surroundings. Tastefully posted information can be helpful and might avoid senseless accidents.

Ocean sports, as well as outdoor pursuits demand a great deal of respect. The beauty of the beaches of Western Cape Breton with their warm waters are a precious natural resource to this island.