Whether it’s a sparkling, gin-clear oasis of spring-fed water or a river gliding by like a sheet of gleaming metal, here in Texas water has caused infinite tribal fights, skirmishes and border wars since the very beginning. Where it exists, life flourishes; where it doesn’t, life is extinguished. Most of us consider water common but it’s actually one of the most uncommon chemical substances in the universe. It can arise as rivers, snow storms, clouds, glaciers, fog or steam. Essentially amorphous, water significantly enables our lives—but it can also kill. Even though our state was once under an ancient sea, Texans today generally don’t fear water hazards like whirlpools, rip currents or quicksand. They should.
Fallacy: Whirlpools Only Exist in the Ocean
In Greek mythology, the fearsome sea monster Charybdis swallowed up entire ships and crew in the ocean near the narrow coast of Sicily. It was later accounted for as a whirlpool. The horror of entire clippers and merchant ships being sucked into the depths of the ocean was perpetrated by fiction writers like Jules Verne and Edgar Allen Poe. In reality, no large vessel has ever been lost to a whirlpool, only smaller craft or swimmers are actually in danger. Still, the thought of a massive whirlpool haunts our nightmares as a ghastly way to die.
A whirlpool, of course, is like a tornado under water. It’s caused when two currents collide, moving in opposing directions or when a current runs into an obstacle. Because of the nature of how they are created, whirlpools can occur anywhere there is moving water, to include creeks, streams, rivers, waterfalls and dams. Did you know that in the Northern Hemisphere whirlpools move counterclockwise and in the Southern Hemisphere they move clockwise? Odd but true, believed to be caused by the force of Earth’s rotation (Coriolis Effect). A large whirlpool is termed a maelstrom and when it is accompanied by a forceful downdraft it becomes a vortex.
It was June 2015 in Lake Texoma just an hour north of Dallas. Recent heavy rains had raised the surface of the lake 35 feet, flooding cabins and marinas all along the shore. In response authorities opened the spillways of the 3-mile long Denison Dam, resulting in an 8-foot wide vortex spinning counterclockwise nearby. It was blocked off by buoys and warning signs because it was powerful enough to pull under small boats, jet skis and swimmers. It lasted for days. As the water level fell, the ominous whirlpool eventually shrank and disappeared—not before, however, it made screens and newspapers all over the world. Here it is on video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5hRSvVfAha0
Fallacy: Rip Currents Will Pull You Under
Another grisly mental image is being pulled under water by a swiftly moving rip current. Did you know rip currents cause more deaths each year in this country than tornadoes, hurricanes and lightning strikes combined?
You might think rip currents are only a hazard for Texans who swim in the Gulf. Fact is, they can kill people in any body of water that has breaking waves—to include lakes. Rip currents do not pull people under the water—they pull people away from the shore, as if they are on a moving treadmill. Drowning results when people pulled offshore can’t keep themselves afloat because of any combination of fear, panic, exhaustion or lack of swimming skills.
Rip currents are nothing more than the return flow of water (from breaking waves) finding its way back from the shallows to deep water by means of a restricted channel. As waves come ashore, they break near the shoreline. When waves break strongly in some locations and weakly in others, circulation cells can form, generating narrow, fast-moving belts of water moving offshore. This means rip currents can appear and disappear for no apparent reason.
Anything that impedes the direct return of water can also cause a rip current, to include underwater formations, piers and jetties or sand bars. How do you spot a rip current? Look for breaks in the incoming wave pattern, a channel of churning, choppy water, an area with a visible difference in water color or a line of foam or debris moving opposite from the incoming waves.
These currents can be forceful enough to sweep away the strongest swimmers, so don’t try to fight it. You can extract yourself from the pull by swimming parallel to the shore (in either direction) until out of the rip current, which is usually not very wide. Another option: tread water or float until the current’s force dissipates in deeper water, then swim back in at an angle to the shoreline. The best defense: swim only where there is a lifeguard on duty. Here’s a video on what rip currents look like: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PuAlDTC_gIQ
Fallacy: Quicksand Can Completely Suck You Under
On a scale of macabre ways to die, being swallowed up by quicksand has got to be among the worst. Images of Indiana Jones (and seemingly infinite other movie characters) struggling to stay above the surface perpetuate this myth. Here’s the deal: the human body is actually less dense than quicksand—meaning physics prevents us from sinking all the way down and being gobbled up. Little reassurance for someone immobilized up to their waist, right?
Does quicksand really exist in Texas?
Jose Rey Escobedo was discovered missing on July 7, 2015. The next day, police received a call reporting a light blue car that had been parked under the San Antonio River Bridge in Goliad County for several days. 3 days later game wardens found his body stuck in quicksand along the riverbank. Escobedo was found in up to his buttocks and bent over, face-down in the sandy outcropping.
Quicksand is formed whenever water seeps up from an underground source and saturates an area of sand, silt, clay or other grainy soil. Ordinary sand can support extreme amounts of weight because friction between the grains of sand creates a “force chain” which distributes the weight across a large area. Add too much water from underneath and a soupy “suspension area” is created with sand floating within the water, significantly reducing friction between grains of sand. Because the water seeps in from the bottom, the top area appears to look normal—offering another meaning to the term “sand trap.”
Although quicksand does not “suck” people under, it does create the same vacuum effect as mud that pulls the shoes off your feet. A combination of surprise and falling through the surface usually causes panic. Fighting the suction-like pull often causes you to sink deeper by making the solution more fluid. So, how do you get out? Stay calm, lean backwards to spread out your weight while backstroking to firmer ground. Move your legs slowly to loosen the surrounding sand and move deliberately toward the edge. Having a stick or trekking pole may help provide leverage; either way, an elevated heartbeat is all but guaranteed!
Quicksand in Texas is usually found along inside curves of rivers and sand washes where natural springs or runoff saturates soft sediments or sand. Beware of marshes, coastlines and riverbanks and canyons fed by spring water. Quicksand can form quickly after floods, spring run-off or during low tide along the coast.
Want to see some Texas quicksand close to home . . . check out this video of a patch found in Elgin: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tHKyezHIRLQ
A Lesson from Mother Nature
Water is a vital part of nature. It’s transparent, tasteless, odorless and nearly colorless. It forms most of Earth’s hydrosphere and the fluids of all living things. And, for all that it supports and sustains, water provides no calories, no organic nutrients. Yet, despite how easy it is to rationalize, Mother Nature requires that we never take it for granted.
Water in Texas can be an all or nothing proposition and, therefore, it deserves our respect. Life-affirming in one moment, deadly the next. It’s all summed up nicely in the Rime of the Ancient Mariner: “Water, water, everywhere, nor any drop to drink.” A fickle dominatrix, Mother Nature provides us all with enough rope to hang ourselves; to slip from a comfortable and self-assured destiny to death and disaster. Often all we need do is just “add water.”