Rip Currents: The Guide for Swimmers

When you are swimming in an ocean or a large lake, it can be scary when you suddenly find yourself being pulled away from the beach. This is known as a rip current and it can be a scary experience.

Luckily, it’s fairly easy to know where you may encounter a rip current so you can avoid them. But, if you do find yourself caught up in one, know that with the proper training you will be able to get yourself out.

Read on to learn more about rip currents, where you may encounter them, and what to do when you do.

What is a Rip Current?

A rip current is a narrow current of water typically found near a beach or a sandbar that draws swimmers away from land to further out at sea. Sometimes rip currents can be found near manmade structures like jetties or piers.

While rip currents are more common at beaches where there is surfing, you can also find them in lakes like the Great Lakes near the northeastern part of the United States.

Rip currents are dangerous because they can be unpredictable in their strength, sometimes able to pull people away from shore very quickly—even if you are a strong swimmer. One study, in particular, has found that rip currents kill over 100 people in the United States each year.

Rip currents can both be very narrow, as well as wide as 50 yards across, but most are right around 30 ft across. They can take you a few hundred feet or a few hundred yards from shore—very quickly. Rip currents are more likely to occur at low tides in areas where there are waves over 2 feet high.

These strong currents typically form because of the topography of a specific beach. They will occur in areas with a rocky sea floor as well as in those that have a smooth sea floor. They are especially likely to occur at beaches that have sandbars, reef life, or a pier.

Areas that experience weather phenomena like hurricanes are more likely to experience rip currents, and they can be even more dangerous because with each storm the rip currents can change or become unpredictable. Rip currents suddenly becoming stronger are an indication that a hurricane or other storm system may be approaching.

How to Identify a Rip Current

You’ve just arrived at a beach to find that you and your friend are the only ones there. How can you know that a rip current may be present? Below are the top things you should look for when trying to identify a rip current.

Look for Dark Water

Rip currents are usually strips of dark water. They may look still and unmoving when compared to the waves nearby, but don’t be fooled as they are typically stronger than the waves. Muddy lines running out to sea are a dead giveaway that there are rip tides in the area.

Look for a Line of Seaweed

Do you see seaweed or other plant vegetation in a narrow strip of water that is moving towards the ocean? The plants are being drawn out to sea and there’s a chance you will be too.

Choppy or Turning Water

Rip currents aren’t always calm, and sometimes they can be chopping or turning, but they will be doing so without waves. There could still be seafoam or white water, however, indicating that the water is moving beneath the surface.

Looking for all of the above signs will likely have you identifying rip currents in no time at all. But if you are ever in doubt if something is a rip current or not, consider asking a lifeguard, or don’t risk swimming at all.

Tips to Protect Yourself Against Rip Currents

Even if you are a master rip current spotter, there are some other preparations you should take to ensure you and your family are safe if you ever encounter a rip current. They are as follows:

  • Always swim where lifeguards are present
  • Assume that if there is surfing at the beach, there will be rip currents
  • Practice swimming in the waves
  • Help your children practice swimming in the waves
  • Teach children to evaluate the safety of the water before entering
  • Consult a lifeguard whenever you are unsure about the prescience of rip currents
  • Never swim alone
  • Check the Rip Current Outlook before swimming

If you do all of these things, it is very unlikely you will ever encounter a rip current. But no matter how good of a swimmer you are, never be too prideful to ask a lifeguard for advice before entering any wild body of water.

There are additional signs that may indicate the presence of rip currents at a beach. These signs are yellow and diamond in shape. They have black squiggly lines on them indicating the water, as well as an individual who appears to be putting their hand in the air. Usually, there is text explaining that the area is known for rip currents.

How to Survive a Rip Current

You may prepare your whole life to one day find yourself caught in a rip current. This is why it’s important you know how to get out of one. Here’s how:

1. Do Not Panic

A rip current cannot pull you under. Take a deep breath, you’ve got this.

2. Do Not Swim Against the Current

Swimming against the current will only tire you out and increase your chances of drowning due to exhaustion.

3. Swim Parallel to the Shore

Rip currents do not extend forever and there are typically exit points near the side of the rip currents. Look for places where there are waves and swim towards them (or try swimming parallel to shore on either side.

4. If You Are Already Tiring, Try Floating

Many are able to escape rip currents just by going with the flow. Try back floating or just treading water. There is a chance the rip current will circle around back to shore.

5. Shout and Yell

Start screaming and yelling, hopefully, someone will hear you and will come to your aid. Just don’t get so caught up in yelling you forget to keep treading water!

Can You Rescue a Rip Current Victim?

What happens when you’re walking along the beach and you see someone caught in a rip current? Can you rescue them safely?

First of all, it is very dangerous to try and rescue a rip current victim. You should never attempt to do so unless you are a properly trained beach lifeguard.

What you can do, however, is call 911 or grab a lifeguard that is nearby who may not see the person. After you have called, or if there is no lifeguard available, see if you can locate a buoy, or something else that floats and throw it to the victim caught in the current.

Do not enter the water yourself without a flotation device as you could become the next victim of the rip current.

Rip Current FAQs

How Fast Are Rip Currents?

Rip currents are surprisingly fast, and they are able to pull swimmers away from shore at a rate of 1-8 feet per second, which is faster than most professional swimmers. As you can imagine, this can bring you away from the shore very fast.

Are Rip Tides and Rip Currents the Same Thing?

Rip tides and rip currents are not the same. A rip tide is a very specific movement of tidal waters in response to an inlet or harbor, while a rip current can come up anywhere where there is a beach with coastal waters.

Is a Rip Current the Same as an Undertow?

While undertows and rip currents are both types of currents, a rip current runs along the surface of the water while an undertow runs along the ocean floor. Rip currents will not pull you under the water, but an undertow can.

Are Rip Currents Seasonal?

Rip currents can be seasonal, but this does not mean they all are. If a rip current is seasonal, it will likely appear during hurricane season (June-November). Never assume that a rip current you’ve previously spotted disappears outside of these months. Always assume it is there unless you are told otherwise.

Why Do Surfers Like Rip Currents?

Surfers like to surf near rip currents because they use them as a quick way to get back out to where the waves break. This helps them to preserve energy and catch as many waves as possible without wasting any time paddling.

Final Thoughts on Rip Currents

Overall, rip currents are extremely dangerous acts of nature, and you should always avoid swimming in an area with strong rip currents. Take the time to learn how to stop them, as well as how to get out of one if you do encounter it. Remember above all else to stay calm and start shouting for help as you swim along the shore as this is the only way to survive a rip tide.

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