Dangerous Currents Stalk Florida Panhandle-Florida

The beaches of Walton County, Fla., are considered some of the most popular in America.

Located along the Gulf of Mexico, they are advertised as the perfect, safe place for a family vacation by the local tourist development council.

What tourists do not hear much about is how dangerous the waters along the Walton County coast can be.

Many visitors may not be aware that rip currents, or the natural phenomena that produce strong underwater currents, can drag swimmers away from the shore.

More than 50 people have drowned in the waters along the Florida panhandle since 2000. Eight of them died on one day in 2003, which is now known as Black Sunday.

Among those who died was retired CNN correspondent Larry LaMotte, who had made Walton County an annual vacation destination for his wife and two children.

"We'd been coming here for 10 years - every summer with our family," said Sandee, LaMotte's wife.

Unexpected Danger Stuns Two Families

On Black Sunday, LaMotte took his children, Ryan and Krysta, for a quick swim before dinner.

"When the waves started to pick up a little bit, we decided to get the boogie boards out, along with a lot of other people that were out there, and play right here in the shoreline," Sandee told ABC News as she pointed to a spot in the water about 10 feet from shore.

Five minutes after Sandee had left her husband and children at the beach to go home and fix dinner, she said, "The kids came bursting in the door."

"They said, 'Mom! Mom! Ryan got stuck in the water, and Daddy went in after him, and now Daddy's gone,'" Sandee said.

Although it is often little understood, the rip current is a common danger that claims an average of 100 lives from coast to coast each year.

It occurs when a sandbar traps the water from incoming waves and creates a kind of artificial pond. When there is a break, or a rip, in the sandbar, the water in the artificial pond flows back out to sea and causes the rip current. The flow can be up to 8 mph.

"All of a sudden the current just starts pulling them into slightly deeper water," said Bill Soltz, a member of the United States Lifesaving Association, a nonprofit, professional association of beach lifeguards and open-water rescuers.

"That's when they start panicking, and it's just a continuation of that before they become in danger and in trouble," he said.

Last year, Ken Pridgen, then-chairman of the Walton County Commission, said the drownings on Black Sunday had not been good for the county.

In response to whether tourists and residents were at risk in Walton County's waters, he replied, "Yes, they're at risk. I mean, anybody [who] gets in that water any time, they're at risk, regardless of even if lifeguards are around."

Barbara Payne of Columbia, Mo., helped to start a campaign to get lifeguards hired in Walton County after she and her daughter and a niece and nephew almost died in a rip current.

"It never dawned on me that I was caught in a rip current," Payne said. "I just kept thinking if we swim hard enough, we'll get there [to the shore]."

Instead, she said that was the classic error. "You keep swimming. You tire yourself out and basically then you don't have any energy left to stay afloat."

Lifeguards on Board

Now Walton County has gotten the message. It has hired lifeguards to patrol the county-owned beach areas.

A fire and rescue chief tells ABC News they've already made eight confirmed rescues this year since they went on duty in March.

Although Walton County has hired lifeguards, they are on duty only at county-owned beaches, which cover one mile of Walton County's 26 miles of beachfront.

Surviving a Rip Current

Professional lifeguards say there is a way to survive rip currents.

"You feel that current pulling you out, and the best thing to do is to try and just ride with it and just ease over to the side," said Bill Soltz, who belongs to a professional lifeguard association.

Although swimmers may be tempted to try to swim toward shore, Soltz and his colleagues say they should instead flow with the current even if it takes them farther away from the coast.

The next step is to swim to the side of the current, which is parallel to the shore. In 20 seconds to 30 seconds, the rip current will dissipate, and the swimmer can ride the waves back to the shore.