August is the month when ocean swimming is at its best; the water has warmed enough to make long swims a pleasant escape from the heat and dust of summer. And there are thousands of takers — Islanders and vacationers of every description are at the shore at all hours, savoring the last summer days and sunsets over the ocean. This is also the month when hurricanes and tropical storms can come barreling up the coast from the warmer waters south of us, and even when these storms stay well offshore they can kick up dangerous surf and rip currents, also known as riptides.
Riptides are narrow, fast-moving ribbons of water that are capable of carrying swimmers who are unaware of the conditions far out to sea. On the Vineyard these currents are most likely to appear along the south shore, from South Beach in Edgartown to the remote, often private beaches up-Island. They are fickle and unpredictable and can change rapidly depending on the tides, currents and wind, but are at their most dangerous when the tide is high and conditions are rough. Surfers and strong, adventuresome swimmers may love these conditions, but lifeguards and emergency responders who work on Island beaches in the summer months know all too well how treacherous they can be.
There are tips for swimmers who become caught in a rip current; the instinct is to swim out of the current, but that is the wrong thing to do. Do not try to fight the current or swim against it, instead ride the current out by swimming parallel to shore until the rip subsides and you can safely make it in. If you are too tired to swim, float or tread water. Most riptides are not more than thirty feet wide, and you will soon be out of danger.
And at all times swimmers should be vigilant and practice good water safety habits, including never swimming alone and picking beaches where there are lifeguards on duty. Swim smart. If conditions are rough, do not go in the water. The ocean will always be there for another day.