Understanding Rip Currents

The very mention of rip currents conjures terror in many people, but in general, if you can swim or float, rips are not dangerous per se. A rip current will not pull you under. Rather it’s the fear that rips engender that causes panic, and panic is the cause of most serious incidents. If you aren’t a strong and confident swimmer, stick to lifeguarded beaches.

To reiterate: panicking is the most dangerous thing you can do when in a tricky situation in the water.

Where there are breaking waves, there are usually rip currents and on surf beaches there will certainly be some fairly hefty rips if conditions are right. Other coastal features such as headlands, estuary mouths, or groynes might also be associated with rips at certain times.

What is a Rip?

A rip is a current (it’s not a tide). Where waves are bringing water into shore, that water must return to a level. So in simple terms a rip current is a river of water which takes the water from breaking waves back out to sea. It might be narrow and short, it might in extreme cases be 100m wide and 500m long. In the latter case, the amount of water needed to generate it is huge – so you would be looking at the kind of conditions where swimmers – and most surfers –  would not want to be.

Some rips run out at more or less 90 degrees to shore, some run at odd angles almost parallel to shore. Some curl round and return to shore.

How To Avoid Rips:

You can never, ever be sure that you won’t be caught in a rip, but avoiding rips will help you to minimise the risk. Counter-intuitively, if it’s surfy, stay in the area of rough white water. The flatter, calmer areas are usually rips!

Learn to spot a rip:

Area of calmer water, usually it’s not white water, with much lower or no waves.

Area of darker water bewteen waves.

May have a rippled surface.

May be cloudy with sand/silt

Ask local lifeguards and surfers to help you spot the rips. They will also be able to tell you where they are most likely to be. Some will be “fixed” (there most of the time, e.g. along headlands) and others move over weeks or months with sand bars, or appear suddenly and unpredictably as “flash” rips. Stand and watch rips, it takes practice to be able to see them. Learn how!

What To Do If Caught in a Rip:

Flash Rips can occur at any time, so one minute you’re standing happily in foamy waves and the next you’re heading out to sea at speed. A gentle rip might suddenly pulse and speed up. What do you do if this happens and you’re not a confident and experienced sea swimmer?

Firstly, DON’T PANIC. Float (if possible on your back), and take a series of slow, calming breaths.

DON’T TRY TO SWIM BACK AGAINST THE RIP. Continue to float and concentrate on your breathing.

Secondly, decide whether you’re strong and confident enough to try to swim out. If you think you are, head for the nearest white water. This might be perpendicular to the rip, but it might not. Swim calmly, don’t panic.

If you are struggling, raise your arm to call for help.

Remain calm, don’t try to swim if you feel panicked. Float on your back.

Once you’re beyond the break if the rip hasn’t returned you to shore, raise your arm again to call for help. Keep floating and keep raising your arm till you’re sure someone has seen you. Someone will come, surfers will always help people in trouble as of course will life guards. Don’t forget you can float or tread water for a long time! Sea water makes you very buoyant.

It goes without saying that if someone is in trouble in the sea, only go in after them if you know how to effect a rescue, AND you understand the sea and the conditions at the time. Otherwise it’s far better to call for help. If you’re inexperienced or a weak swimmer then swim on lifeguarded beaches; and swim with people who understand the local conditions and who can tell you where is safe. If you do find yourself rescuing someone in a rip, it might be better to float with it, and signal for help. Keep them calm, and stay where you are.


More information:

The most informative, authoritative and interesting website on all things related to the sea is Dr Rip’s Science of the SurfIt’s worth watching each of the science of the surf videos several times. They include a range of accessible, essential information including types of wave and rip currents.

Dr Rip’s Essential Beach Book by Dr Rob Brander is extremely highly recommended, and is the source of much of this information.

Words : Lynne Roper
Pictures : See Credits