Rip Current 101: Break the Grip of the Rip!

It can happen at any beach with breaking waves, even the Great Lakes. If you’re not careful, rip currents can take you out further into the water. If you swim against it, you will get nowhere. Rip currents are the root cause of 80% of surf rescues and cause more than 100 deaths a year! 

Credit: rococohobo via Flickr

Credit: rococohobo via Flickr

While rip current speeds are typically 1-2 feet per second, speeds as high as 8 feet per second have been measured — this is faster than an Olympic swimmer! So, rip currents can sweep even the strongest swimmer out to sea. Knowing how to identify rip currents, understanding how they work, and remembering how to avoid and survive them is information that can save your life and the lives of loved ones.

Credit: emdot via Flickr

Credit: emdot via Flickr

Why do rip currents form?

As waves travel from deep to shallow water, they break near the shoreline. When waves break strongly in some locations and weakly in others, this causes circulation cells which become rip currents: narrow, fast-moving belts of water traveling offshore. Read more here

Credit: NOAA

Credit: NOAA

Where do they form?

Rip currents most typically form at low spots or breaks in sandbars, and also near structures such as groins, jetties and piers. Rip currents can be very narrow or extend in width to hundreds of yards. The seaward pull of rip currents varies: sometimes the rip current end just beyond the line of breaking waves, but sometimes rip currents continue to push hundreds of yards offshore.

Credit: s o d a p o p via Flickr

Credit: s o d a p o p via Flickr

How to Identify Rip Currents

Look for any of these clues:

  • A channel of churning, choppy water
  • An area having a notable difference in water color
  • A line of foam, seaweed, or debris moving steadily seaward
  • A break in the incoming wave pattern
Credit: NOAA

Credit: NOAA

However, rip currents are often not readily or easily identifiable to the average beach-goer. Often none of the above clues may indicate the presence of rip currents. For your safety, be aware of this major surf zone hazard. Polarized sunglasses make it easier to see the rip current clues provided above.

How to Avoid and Survive Rip Currents

Here are good tips that will help increase your survivability when encountered with rip currents:

  • Learn how to swim!
  • 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.
  • Obey all instructions and orders from lifeguards.
  • If caught in a rip current, remain calm to conserve energy and think clearly.
  • Don’t fight the current. Swim out of the current in a direction following the shoreline. When out of the current, swim towards shore.
  • If you are unable to swim out of the rip current, float or calmly tread water. When out of the current, swim towards shore.
  • If you are still unable to 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 a lifeguard is not available, have someone call 9-1-1 . Throw the rip current 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.
Credit: NOAA

Credit: NOAA

Stay safe. Know Before™.

For more information on rip currents, please read NOAA’s Rip Current Science

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