If your plans involve heading towards an ocean any time soon—you lucky dog—then this post is for you. Understanding rip currents is a vital component to staying safe in the ocean. Even the strongest swimmers can struggle when caught in a rip tide. Bottom line: don’t hit the waves until you’ve brushed up on your rip current facts and safety tips.
Rip currents can develop at pretty much any beach where you see waves. While beaches by the ocean are prime candidates for rip currents, some large lakes can have them, too.
You might find rip currents in between sandbars, along a jetty, or where wave trains cross—so in some areas, a rip current might occur in the same space all the time, whereas in other areas, the “where” is constantly shifting.
Geographically, it doesn’t matter where in the world you are—rip currents do not discriminate between countries or continents.
Here’s the short definition: a rip current is a relatively narrow, fast-moving current of water at the surface that draws out into the ocean, past any incoming wave breaks.
Picture yourself sitting on a beach, watching the waves coming in. The waves move deep water from out in the ocean in towards the shallower area onshore. This creates two currents: water flowing in, and water flowing out. This latter type of current is known as a rip current.
When waves crash, the incoming water needs to find a place where it can draw back out into the sea. This is where the rip current occurs.
Despite popular beliefs, a rip current will not pull you down under the water. However, it can carry you out into the ocean on the surface of the water, if you find yourself caught in the area where water from the waves is drawn back out to the sea.
Here’s a startling figure: according to the National Weather Service, more than 80% of water rescues on surf beaches are related to rip currents. Each year, approximately 100 people drown while caught in a rip current. Strong rip currents are faster than any swimmer: anyone caught in one is potentially in serious trouble.
Identifying a Rip Current
Keep your eyes out for obvious channels of water flowing back into the ocean—these areas are sometimes a different color than the surrounding water. The rip current might also be marked by a relatively steady line of seaweed, foam, or other floating ocean debris.
Here’s a disclaimer: rip currents are not always easy to see, and these clues are not always present—in fact, some rip currents can be almost invisible to the average beach goer. As such, always check in with surf reports and speak with the lifeguards to get the full picture.
If You Get Caught
If you find yourself caught in a rip current, do not try to swim against it—no matter how strong of a swimmer you are, you will wear yourself out. Instead, swim perpendicular to the rip current. Typically, this will mean swimming out sideways, parallel to the shore, until you’re out of the rip current stream. If this proves to be very difficult or impossible, simply tread water and stay afloat as the rip current pushes you outwards. Eventually, the current will open up.
When you’ve escaped the current (either by swimming out of it or by floating out from it), then you can start swimming towards the shore.
Of course, the best way to avoid getting caught in a rip current is to avoid them altogether. Read sign postings, opt for protected beaches with lifeguards, and never swim alone in the ocean.