Beware the Rip Current!

June 18, 2016 1:33 pm0 commentsViews: 4
Share Button


The ocean can be as dangerous as it is relaxing. Those who frequent the ocean have no doubt encountered a rip current or two in their day. Understanding how rip currents form and how to get out of a rip current can make the difference between a fun or tragic seaside afternoon.


What are rip currents?

The ocean is a powerful body of water that is governed by tides, winds and underwater currents. Swimming in the ocean is not as easy as swimming in a pool. The currents and waves can tire even seasoned swimmers.

The National Weather Service says rip currents form on just about every surf beach on any day. Rip currents are often slow and will not pose much of a threat to swimmers. However, under certain conditions, the strength and velocity of a rip current can increase and pose a threat to swimmers.

As waves travel from deep to shallow water, they break near the shoreline. Should waves break strongly in some areas and weakly in others due to the undersea patterns of beach, jetties and other formations, circulation cells can form. These cells form a narrow, fast-moving belt of water that travels off shore. This is a rip current.

Rip currents form typically at low spots or breaks in sandbars. The strength of a rip current tends to increase during high surf conditions.


Recognizing rip currents

The seaward pull of a rip current is sometimes visible to the naked eye. The water in the area may have a different color from the surrounding ocean. There may be an apparent break in the incoming wave pattern. You also may be able to see a channel of choppy water with foam, debris or seaweed moving out toward the ocean. Sometimes, though, rip currents are not readily apparent, or may only be so to the trained eye. The United States Lifesaving Association, in partnership with NOAA’s National Weather Service, is working to raise awareness about the dangers of rip currents, and also to research ways to predict the strength and occurrence of rip currents.


Escaping a Rip Current

USLA estimates rip currents account for more than 80 percent of rescues performed by surf beach lifeguards. Understanding how to safely navigate a rip current can help save a life.

* Whenever possible, avoid swimming in waters where rip currents have been observed. Consult with a lifeguard to see if there are any areas of water best avoided on a given day.

* When swimming, swim only in waters monitored by a lifeguard. This increases your visibility should you need help while in the water.

* Never swim alone. Having a buddy with you means one person can call for help if the other is in danger.

* Remain calm if you get caught in a rip current. Conserve energy and think through your plan.

* Rip currents will drag you outward into the sea, but they do not pull you under the water. This means you can escape a rip current with some clear thinking.

* Swim parallel to the shoreline to get out of the narrow channel that is the rip current. Do not attempt to fight the current and swim back toward the shore directly. Move in a direction following the shoreline and then gradually back to the beach in a diagonal pattern. This should get you out of the rip current.

* If you are unable to get out of the rip current, tread water until it pulls you far enough out to calmer waters. Then swim toward the shore. If you are unable to reach the shore, draw attention to yourself to alert a lifeguard.

* If you notice someone in a rip current, it is best to seek the help of a lifeguard rather than try to help the person yourself. Many people drown while attempting to assist someone caught in a rip current.


Rip currents can be treacherous components of ocean swimming. But recognizing the dangers and knowing what to do if you encounter a rip current can help prevent tragedy. ■