rip current surfing
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Beach Safety: How to Spot a Rip Current

Rip currents pose life-threatening dangers to swimmers and surfers alike. Learn how you can spot and survive a rip current with our guide.

beach surf

The ocean is full of many dangers: ghost ships from expeditions of a distant past, sharks lurking around reefs to get a taste of your fins, and sirens calling surfers to an untimely wipeout with their songs heralding devastation. Yet, one of the most tangible of these dangers remains to be rip currents.

Suppose you cannot spot a rip current and get out of the ocean in time. In that case, you’re likely to have an unpleasant thrill (if not something akin to a near-death experience) since these dangerous currents are able to move even the strongest swimmer out to sea if caught.

Of course, such a hazard that threatens your surf zone will be more often than not reported by the national weather service (or national ocean service) of your country, but there might still be times when you’re not able to check those reports out or when rips form as a surprise to all.

Therefore, if you don’t want to get caught in a rip and fight for your life, it’s important to learn how to spot a rip current and how to react to it if you’re in the ocean, even if you’re an Olympic swimmer.

What Is a Rip Current?

According to the National Ocean Service of the United States, lifeguards rescue more than three people from a rip every day. Still, the annual number of deaths suffered due to rip currents is staggering: 100 people drown every year before they can be rescued. The numbers are not less staggering in Australia either: The Sydney Morning Herald reports that 4,2 million Australians between the ages of 16 and 69 have been caught in a rip at least once in their lives.

So, what makes these currents so dangerous and, in a sense, irresistible? Well, unlike the waves we’re riding, these currents don’t move from the ocean towards the shore. Rather, they move from the shore towards the open ocean. 

As if their direction doesn’t present enough of a danger for surfers and swimmers alike, the pace of some of these rip currents can reach above 5 miles (8 kilometers) per hour. Moreover, They can be wider than 150 feet (45 meters), so their area of impact is quite large as well, rendering them one of the most feared natural threats in the world.

A typical rip current starts from the shoreline or somewhere near it. Then, it moves through where the surf is, passes the breaking waves, and reaches the open ocean. So, anyone surfing at the moment the rip is formed is in danger of getting caught in it.

A common misconception about rip currents is that, sometimes, people tend to mistake a rip current with a rip tide or an undertow. They’re not the same: 

  • A rip tide is a form of tidal water that’s stuck in an inlet like an estuary, harbor, or bay and moves frantically; it’s not a rip current.
  • An undertow, on the other hand, is when the water sinks after being moved to a hill on the ocean floor by a wave. Unless there’s a steep incline on the ocean floor, it’s neither strong nor dangerous.

Where and When Do Rip Currents Happen and How Can You Spot Them?

beach sandbar

These currents can happen on any beach where there are waves breaking, but they mostly happen when there’s a low tide. Moreover, beaches with sand bars are more prone to house rip currents.

Having said that, let’s see how you can spot a rip current.

  • Learn how to read and start following surf forecasts. These forecasts will inform you about the surf conditions of your break. That way, you’ll learn what dangers are lurking around the corner.
  • Be wary of flags and signs. More often than not, a patrolled beach where rip currents are more than just a possibility will have signs or flags pointing out the exact area a rip current can be expected. Stay away from such areas.
  • Examine the breaking waves. On a regular beach break, waves hit sand bars and break to both sides. However, when there’s a rip current, there’ll be a patch of flat water between the sides of the break. If you see such a patch, it’s better not to paddle out into the water.
  • Look for discolored water. If the color of the water is different in a certain zone and has a deeper/darker shade, that might be an indication of a rip current. Even if it’s just a suspicion on your behalf, it’s still better not to go in.
  • Check out if there’s anything moving towards the open ocean. The oceans are not always clear, so there’s quite a chance that the particular beach break you frequent has some debris on it. See if there’s any consistent movement of debris away from the shore. If there is, stay away from the water. If there’s no debris, seaweed or white foam going out into the ocean might be indicators of a rip current as well.

How to Survive a Rip Current

No matter how careful you are, there’s still a chance that you might get caught in a rip current, and no matter how relaxed a person you are, you might still panic in the face of its force and cannot know what to do. For example, most tend to try to reach the shore when caught in rip currents, but that doesn’t always bode well for them.

So, panicking and swimming towards the shore in the hope that you can beat the ocean are in vain. What can you do instead to escape it?

  • Stay calm and don’t panic. Obviously, this applies to all life-threatening situations, but it’s not just a cliché—it can truly mean the difference between life and death.
  • Swim parallel to the shore. The aim of swimming parallel to the shore is not getting caught in the current while also enabling us to get out of the current as early as possible. Yes, they can reach a width of 150 feet, but you can beat them, and you have a better chance of doing so when swimming parallel.
  • Call for help. Try to stay afloat until you reach shallow water and call for help in the meantime. The beaches where rip currents present a tangible danger are mostly patrolled ones, so there’ll likely be a lifeguard to help you.

Wrapping Up…

You can be a great swimmer, you can be a great surfer, you can even be a great human being, but no matter your aspirations, your safety should come prior to anything else. And as rip currents are considered one of the most dangerous threats to swimmers and surfers alike, it’s important to learn how to spot and survive one.

Be safe!

Written by
Jeremy Dean
surf coaching