Rips and Rescues

Lt Austin Kirwin drove down the seawall taking quick looks at the swimmers in the water as he wove his way through traffic. The whole staff was on edge with the unfortunate rip current related drowning fatalities of the twins out of Houston.

Suddenly he saw something off of Murdochs that didn’t look right. Erratic splashing and movement in the water drew his attention to what looked like four heads out past the end of the rock jetties. He called for backup, found a place to park, grabbed two rescue tubes from the back of his patrol truck, and ran as fast as he could down to the sand and into the water. Austin keeps himself in top shape and is an excellent runner and swimmer.

Things got confusing when he hit the water. A bystander also had spotted the swimmers and was on his way out to help as well. The rest was a blur, but within a couple of minutes Austin had thrown a tube to two people that were floating on it. He’d made it to two more farther out and brought them back to the two and had all four reasonably stabilized. Sergeant Andy Moffett made it to him quickly and took two of them off his hands, and Supervisor Micah Fowler was able to spot and rescue the would be good Samaritan. All 5 made it back to shore in good shape. Austin even was able to dry off quickly and make it to a press conference about the tragedy of the twins as the other guards made sure the rescued were OK and collected their information for a report.

So many things had to come together to keep this from being another tragedy. Training, work ethic, funding, and infrastructure, are all pieces to the equation. But equally important are the intangibles, like Austin being able to use his years of experience and that sixth sense that enabled him to translate those little splashes in his peripheral vision into perception of a threat that needed quick response.

It stands to reason that both fatal and non-fatal drownings are also largely the result of rips when talking about the beachfront. But there isn’t one size fits all for rip currents. The current that was likely the cause of the twins’ death was a structural rip. A current caused by a pier that sticks out into the water. These are known as “permanent rips” because they’re always there in varying degrees. The current that almost took the lives that Austin, Andy, and Micah saved was right in the middle of open beach. Some combination of factors related to the form of the shoreline and the submerged shape of the bottom (bathymetry) caused a rip current to run out in that specific area for a finite amount of time. This is a “fixed rip”. These are the two main types of rip currents found along the Texas coast. They’re responsible for 80% of our rescues and likely both fatal and non-fatal drownings.