If I save your life this long holiday weekend, I want credit.
If you are lazily swimming in the Atlantic Ocean and you suddenly find yourself on the way to Portugal -- gripped in the liquid embrace of a rip current -- I want you to think back to what you read here today: Don't try to swim against the current. Instead, swim parallel to the beach, angled in slightly toward land, until you find a rip-current-free section of surf.
That's what Howard Marks did 19 years ago. The Falls Church resident was vacationing in Avon, N.C. Howard trotted toward the surf, stopping briefly to read a cartoonish sign that was planted in the sand.
"Those few seconds were later to save my life," Howard told me.
I've never understood how someone could be killed by a rip current. Eventually you'll end up back on land, right? Howard learned all too quickly.
"I think my perception was that the water would be rough," he said of a rip current. But the sea was calm, with waves so small that they could hardly be called waves. There was no turbulence.
What surprised Howard was how quickly he found himself being pulled out to sea. "I can well understand how people could drown in those conditions," he said.
But he remembered that sign on the beach, which had counseled swimming parallel to shore rather than directly toward it. "Just swim slowly and be patient," Howard said. "Your life depends on it."
And if you find yourself tiring, scream like a maniac until someone on the beach notices you.
It'd be a stretch to call Howard Marks the poster child for rip currents, but the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration did put me in touch with him when it launched its new "Break the Grip of the Rip" campaign this week.
More than 100 Americans die each year due to rip currents. They form when waves breaking near shore break strongly in some areas and weakly in others -- typically because of gaps in sandbars. Rotating swatches of water called "circulation cells" can form. These belts of water can move quickly offshore -- at speeds of up to 8 feet per second -- taking unlucky swimmers with them.
By the way, the terms "rip tide" and "undertow" have gone the way of "killer whale." They don't accurately describe the physics involved, the NOAA folks will tell you. Rip currents are localized phenomena, not a tide, and you don't get pulled under, just out, where -- if you're not careful -- you tire, panic and drown.
(The NOAA Web site urges us all to say "rip current," sniffing that "Use of other terms may confuse people and negatively impact public education efforts.")
Now that I've saved you from rip currents, let me address a few other hazards you may face as the Memorial Day weekend starts and summer unofficially kicks off:
Lightning: If you can hear thunder, you are close enough to get hit by lightning. Get inside. If you can't, go to a low-lying place away from trees or poles and make yourself as small as possible. Don't lie on the ground, though. Squat. If you're in a group, put some distance between one another so lightning doesn't ricochet among you like a deadly pinball. (Source: National Weather Service.)
Heat stroke: Get to a shady or air-conditioned area. Spray the person with cool water from a garden hose or immerse him in a pool of cool water. (Source: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.)
Shark attack: Don't panic. Swim calmly and rhythmically back to land. Keep the shark in sight. "If all else fails, try to look prepared to fight back." (Source: National Parks Conservation Association.)
Terrorist attack with a dirty bomb: Cover your nose and mouth and go in a building that has not been damaged. (Source: www.ready.gov.)
Errant frisbee: Duck! (Source: personal experience.)
More Hair, Less Stomach
The following school reunions are coming up. With enough advance warning you ought to be able to start that self-improvement regimen: ab crunches, hair plugs, graduate degree. Get cracking!
Annandale High -- 50th "Atomversary" June 4-5. Looking for all alumni and staff. Visit www.fcps.edu/AnnandaleHS/Atomversary/ or call 703-642-4140.
Newport School all years -- June 11. Call 301-942-4550.
St. Anthony's High Class of 1974 -- June 18-19; contact Veronica (Daniel) Johnson at 301-592-9029 or email@example.com.
Rockville High Class of 1979 -- June 19. Call Tracy Mosser-Simmons at 301-746-7042 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
Herndon High Class of 1954 -- July 10-11. Call Ginny (Moffett) Bernstorf, 410-266-0666 or email@example.com, or Peg (Buell) Bowman at PegBo7@aol.com.
Friendly High Class of 1984 -- July 17. Visit www.greatreunions.com.
Springbrook High Class of 1974 -- July 17. Visit www.greatreunions.com.
Yorktown High Class of 1969 -- July 24. Classes of 1968 & 1970 encouraged to attend. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
West Springfield High Class of 1984 -- July 24. Visit www.capitalreunions.com.
T.C. Williams High Class of 1978-80 -- July 24. Visit www.greatreunions.com.
Chantilly High Class of 1994 -- July 31. Visit www.greatreunions.com.
You can reach me at email@example.com or 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071.