COLUMBIA RIVER - The last time Clifford Yarborough Jr.'s friends saw him alive, the athletic 17-year-old was boogie-boarding in shoulder-deep water off Long Beach, then he was struggling against a strong undertow that dragged him out to sea.
It was about the same time a passerby jumped into the ocean to save a person fighting the current at nearby Sid Snyder Beach.
Just a few hours earlier, a 37-year-old woman was hospitalized with hypothermia after she and two 15-year-olds were rescued off Arcadia Beach just to our south in Oregon.
Despite the onslaught of rip currents and the July 27 tragedy of Yarborough, plenty of other beachgoers found themselves in similar circumstances the following two days.
On the heels of the U.S. Coast Guard's busiest weekend yet this year, authorities are urging swimmers to take caution at all beaches.
Coast Guard Lt. j.g. Brooks Crawford, a pilot at USCG Group Astoria, recommended weak swimmers stay in shallow water.
"The ocean bottom changes pretty drastically and without warning sometimes," he said. "They shouldn't wade deeper than their knees. I would also tell parents to not just keep an eye on kids but to stay with their kids. Often they can't react quickly enough to save a small child being pulled out."
"Even when water appears calm," he said, "it likely isn't. Calm water can actually indicate some of the most dangerous conditions: Oftentimes, areas of calm water are where it's rushing back out to sea ... currents can be strong there."
Crawford said familiarity is essential to staying safe, noting beach safety brochures are often available at local chambers of commerce, and lifeguards or law enforcement can typically answer questions.
The fast-moving belts of water typically extend from the shoreline, through the surf zone, past breaking waves. And while they typically flow seaward at speeds of 1 or 2 feet per second, rip currents can travel up to 8 feet per second, according to the National Weather Service. Formed by large amounts of water trapped after washing onto any of Oregon's beaches, they're especially prevalent near jetties and headlands. They kill as many as 100 people each year.
While rip currents are not easy to identify to the average beachgoer, according to the NWS, a few clues can help identify their presence: a channel of churning, choppy water, an area noticeably darker than the water around it; a line of foam or debris moving steadily seaward; a break in the incoming wave pattern.
"Those who can't swim well should tread water and call for help," he said.