How To Survive Rip Currents
It’s not even hurricane season yet, but rip currents have already made their debut
An average of 100 people die in rip currents every year, and nearly 80 percent of all rescues—30,000 a year—made by lifeguards at ocean beaches are from rip currents. Although they can occur any time, they are especially prevalent when the ocean is churned up with powerful offshore storms, or even coastal storms, as we saw here earlier this month.
What are rip currents?
A rip current is a powerful, narrow channel of fast-moving water that can rush at speeds of up to eight feet per second, pulling swimmers away from the shore out into open water. They usually extend through the line of breaking waves, but can flow a hundred yards or more offshore. They can be as narrow as 20 feet or as broad as several hundred yards wide.
Rip currents are often incorrectly called “rip tides.” A tide is something different: a very gradual change in the level of water, occurring on a regular basis over a period of hours.
Often referred to as “undertow,” rip currents don’t actually pull swimmers under the water. The strongest pull is actually felt about a foot above the bottom of the ocean’s floor, which can knock your feet out from under you, making you feel you’re being pulled under, even though you’re not. But because of the current’s power, as the shoreline rapidly recedes, swimmers panic, struggle, exhaust themselves, and drown.
How to spot them
Rip currents can occur in any kind of weather, at any time of year. The can be influenced by such factors as weather, configuration of the beach and ocean bottom, tides, and how waves break offshore. They are most prevalent at low tide, when the water is already receding from the beach. They are also more likely to occur with a strong onshore wind.
It’s often difficult for the average beachgoer to identify a rip current from the shore, but in general, you should look for an area with a noticeable difference in the color of the water, caused by sand and sediment being churned up by the water; a line of foam, seaweed, or debris moving out to sea; or a place where the waves aren’t breaking, but has breaking waves on either side.
Remember, though, that many rip currents are completely invisible. The only time you can be certain there are no rip currents hidden in the water is if there are no breaking waves. No waves, no rip.
How to avoid them
Check weather and surf forecasts before heading to the beach. The National Weather Service (NWS) posts rip current warnings when conditions favor their formation. Color-coded flags posted at many beaches can also be an indicator. Green signifies a low likelihood of rip currents, yellow a moderate chance, and red is a strong warning.
The U.S. Lifesaving Association (USLA) offers the following tips to avoid being caught in a rip current:
- Learn how to swim if you’re going to venture more than ankle-deep in the water. If you can swim, you can escape.
- Never swim alone.
- Be cautious at all times, especially when swimming at unguarded beaches. If in doubt, don’t go out.
- Whenever possible, swim at a lifeguard-protected beach.
Break the grip of the rip
Not even Olympic swimmers can swim against a rip current, because the pull is simply too powerful. According to the USLA, the most important thing to do when caught in a rip current is to remain calm. This helps you conserve energy and think clearly. Realize that you will not be pulled indefinitely out to sea; remember that most rip currents dissipate within a hundred yards of shore.
- Don’t fight the current. Swim out of the current in a direction following (parallel to) the shoreline. Once you’re out of the current’s pull, swim at an angle through the waves back to shore.
- If for some reason you can’t reach shore, draw attention to yourself: Face the shore, wave your arms, and yell for help.
- If you see someone in trouble, get help from a lifeguard. If one is not available, call 911. Throw the victim something that floats and yell instructions on how to escape. Remember, many people drown while trying to save someone else from a rip current.
Our one and only goal is to keep you and your family safe and healthy. If you have questions about this or any other health-related topic, please contact us.