-ADVERTISEMENT-
-ADVERTISEMENT-

You’re out and about at the beach, enjoying the sun and your dose of “vitamin sea”, when you feel yourself being pulled out farther from the shore.

You’re caught in a rip current, and unless you know what to do, you could find yourself in a very dangerous situation.

The Fast Lane

A rip current, also known as a rip tide, is a narrow and fast-moving current of water that is moving away from the shore.

Such a current can take the path of least resistance to be able to flow offshore more easily, which lends to increase its speed. On average, it travels at one to two feet per second, but has been documented to reach up to eight feet per second.

There are three main parts to a rip current: the FEEDER(S), the NECK and the HEAD. As waves approach, they will break along the sandbars then finally impact the beach. After contact with the beach, the water becomes trapped by the sandbars and will look for a path with the least amount of resistance, accelerated by gravity back to the ocean. Eventually the seaward component of the rip will slow down and disperse in the head area. Illustration from the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

While rip currents are more common during hurricane season, especially during its peak from August until October, they can happen any time of the year.

-ADVERTISEMENT-

More than half of the rescues made by lifeguards along beaches are related to rip currents. According to a preliminary statistics report from the National Weather Service (NWS), over a ten-year average, rip currents caused 57 deaths annually from 2008 to 2017.

How to Spot a Rip Current

Rip currents can happen anywhere where there are breaking waves, including large lakes. They can suddenly appear and vanish just as quickly, or stay for weeks and even be a permanent feature depending on several factors.

While people who are inexperienced may find difficulties identifying rip currents, they have tell-tale signs that make them easy to identify.

One of the easiest ways to identify rip currents are gaps between waves. In many situations, inexperienced beach-goers mistake these calm-looking gaps as better and safer spots for them to swim until it’s too late.

The calm-looking gap between breaking waves is a rip current and deceives some people until they’re dragged farther away from the shore. Photo by Weather.gov

Be on the lookout for differences in the color of the water near the shore. Rip currents tend to drag debris like sand, sediment and seaweed back out to the sea, making them easier to spot if you know what to look for.

Rip currents bringing sand and other debris with them away from the shore. Photo by the LA County Fire Department.

What to Do?

Although rip currents are one of the biggest dangers you’ll encounter while at the beach (you’re more likely to die from a rip current than from a shark attack), they’re avoidable and you can survive one if you know how to respond appropriately to the situation.

  1. Get Out While You Can

If you feel the water pulling you away from the shore, get out. It’s easy to get away from a rip current in water that’s waist-deep while the flow is relatively slower and you can use your feet, but once you get deeper, it’ll be more difficult to escape owing to the greater depth and accelerating current.

  1. Keep Calm

If a rip current manages to take you away from the shore, don’t panic—you’ll need a clear head to get out of the situation you’re in.

Unlike what most people think, a rip current won’t drag you underwater or throw you out so far into the sea. In most cases, a rip current will take you within a hundred feet from shore, although it’s possible that a rip current can push you as far as a thousand feet away.

If you panic as soon as you’re pulled by a rip current, you might try swimming against it and towards the shore and that’s where the real danger lies — you’re highly likely to exhaust yourself and drown. Fighting against a rip current is a battle that you would not want to be in because you’re guaranteed to lose.

  1. Swim Parallel to the Shore

Keep calm and swim parallel to the shore to escape the current. Rip currents are narrow and it’s possible to escape their path, especially if you’re a strong swimmer.

If escaping a rip current’s neck isn’t possible for you, or there are structures around like jetties which could obstruct your path, go with the flow. As soon as you reach the head and the current disperses, that’s when you assess your options and make use of the energy you conserved while drifting out.

  1. Call for Help

Once you reach the head of the rip current, and you’re still within audible distance from the shore, you can keep yourself afloat and call the attention of a lifeguard or other people who may be able to assist you. This can be especially useful if you’re not that good at swimming to reach the shore yourself. Wave your hands and loudly shout for help.

  1. Make Your Way Back

After escaping, or as soon as you find yourself at its head where the current has subsided, you can swim towards the shore. Swim diagonally away from the rip current to avoid getting pulled back in.

Take it easy and remember to take periodic rests—float on your back until you have regained some of your strength, then swim until you’re back on land.

 

While rip currents are dangerous, they’re not impossible to avoid and escape. Always be on the lookout for warnings posted on the beach and ask the lifeguard on duty about the likelihood of rip currents in the area. Learning how to spot them yourself is also very useful.

If you find yourself getting dragged away from the beach, know that it’s not impossible to survive one — just keep calm and go with the flow.