The Facts About Rip Currents

2,388Views 0Comments Posted 11/04/2024

What is a Rip Current? 

A rip current (also known as a rip) is a specific type of water current that can occur near beaches where the waves break. A rip is a strong, localized and narrow current of water that moves directly away from the shore by cutting through the lines of breaking waves, like a river flowing out to sea.  The force of the current in a rip is strongest and fastest next to the surface of the water. 

Rip currents can be hazardous to people in the water.  Swimmers who are caught in a rip current and who do not understand what is happening, or who may not have the necessary water skills, may panic, or they may exhaust themselves by trying to swim directly against the flow of water and drown. 

A rip current is not the same thing as undertow, although some people use that term incorrectly when they are talking about a rip current.  Contrary to popular belief, neither rip nor undertow can pull a person down and hold them under the water.  A rip simply carries floating objects, including people, out to just beyond the zone of the breaking waves, at which point the current dissipates and releases everything it is carrying.  The surface of a rip current can often appear to be a relatively smooth area of water, without any breaking waves, and this deceptive appearance may cause some beach-goers to believe that it is a suitable place to enter the water.

In a rip current, death by drowning occurs when a person has limited water skills and panics, or when a swimmer persists in trying to swim to shore against a strong rip current, and eventually becomes exhausted and drowns.

How to Spot a Rip Current

The key signs to look for are: 

  • Deeper and/or darker water
  • Fewer breaking waves
  • Sandy colored water extending beyond the surf zone
  • Debris or seaweed
  • Significant water movement

Sometimes it can be easier to look for where the waves are breaking consistently, and then look to each side where they don’t break consistently. Those areas are rip currents.  Can you spot a rip? Rips can change shape and location quickly and may be difficult to see.

How to Survive a Rip Current

A rip current is like a moving treadmill, which the swimmer can get out of quite easily by swimming at a right angle, across the current, i.e. parallel to the shore in either direction. Rip currents are usually not very wide, so getting out of one only takes a few strokes. Once out of the rip current, getting back to shore is not difficult, since waves are breaking, and floating objects, including swimmers, will be pushed by the waves towards the shore. 

As an alternative, people who are caught in a strong rip can simply relax, either floating or treading water, and allow the current to carry them until it dissipates completely once it is beyond the surf line. Then the person can signal for help, or swim back through the surf, doing so diagonally, away from the rip and towards the shore. 

It is necessary for coastal swimmers to understand the danger of rip currents, to learn how to recognize them, and how to deal with them.

STOP and LOOK to check for rips or other dangers and PLAN how to stay safe during your next beach vacation.