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Dangerous rip currents, high surf expected at L.A. beaches this weekend

May 21, 2010 |  2:33 pm

LifeguardClick for beach safety graphic This past winter was "gnarly," in a good way, for Southern California surfers, thanks in large part to a fair number of winter storms.

It was a season of big surf.

"This was a great winter for surfing," said Patrick Jones, a captain for the Los Angeles County Fire Department’s lifeguard division in Hermosa Beach.

But this weekend, the region should see one of the downsides of great surf.

The big surf, combined with runoff from storm drains going into the ocean, has dug trenches and holes and otherwise changed the topography of the sand just offshore.

The result: rip currents galore.

"This is a spring delight for surfers, and a spring fright for almost everyone else because of the rip currents," said Bill Patzert, a climatologist for the Jet Propulsion Laboratory and sometimes surfer.

Expert surfers and skilled swimmers sometimes use the powerful currents to hitch a ride to the next good wave, Patzert and Jones explained. 

But for the vast majority of swimmers, and many surfers, a strong rip current will provoke only panic. Instead of swimming parallel to shore, which is what a swimmer caught in one of these currents should do, many will fruitlessly try to swim against it.

"They can be very dangerous. It all comes down to a person’s swimming ability and comfort level in the ocean," Jones said. Off some beaches, he explained, you can get rip currents that will pull you up to 400 yards away from shore.

That’s when lifeguards have to use jet skis or other watercraft to retrieve swimmers in trouble, Jones said.

Rip currents are often visible from the beach, he said. Ocean water is usually a bluish green, but when rip currents form, the color changes to a light green and then to a light brown color, from all the sand being moved around, Jones said.

That’s something lifeguards keep an eye on, he said.

Jones said that changes in the direction of the swell should soon begin to fill in some of the holes and trenches in the sand, reducing the danger of rip currents by the middle to the end of June.

Weather forecasters expect surf up to 6 or 7 feet along many L.A. and Ventura county beaches, with heights decreasing beginning Saturday. However, the rip current danger should persist, said Bill Hoffer, a weather specialist for the National Weather Service in Oxnard.

Along with relatively high surf and rip currents, Southern California should expect strong winds throughout much of the region and especially in canyons, passes and mountain areas, he said. In some places, gusts of up to 50 mph are expected, he said.

That could make for very poor visibility, especially in areas such as the Antelope Valley, Hoffer said. "It could blow a lot of dust and sand and reduce visibility to one quarter of a mile," he said.

-- Hector Becerra