"Tips on the Rip" The dangers of Rip Currents

Imagine this: It's a gorgeous summer day and you decide to go to the beach to take a swim.

When you arrive at the beach, you see this view.

 Calm right?

 Wrong. There’s a danger out there that causes hundreds of deaths each year.

 Did you see it? There’s a rip current.

Credit to Chris Brewster, USLA ( http://www.ripcurrents.noaa.gov/photos.shtml)

Credit to Chris Brewster, USLA (http://www.ripcurrents.noaa.gov/photos.shtml)

What is a rip current?

A rip current is a powerful, narrow channel of fast-moving water that can occur along ocean coasts and even lakes. These currents can be as fast as 8 ft per second; that can be as fast as an Olympic swimmer if not faster, and move a tremendous amount of water away from shore to the deep ocean.

Rip currents can be as narrow as 10 or 20 feet in width but may be up to 10 times as wide, depending on conditions; the length can also vary. Rip currents begin to slow down as they move offshore, beyond the breaking waves, but can sometimes extend for hundreds of feet beyond from waves break on the beach.  

How are they formed?



Rip currents form when waves break near the shoreline, piling up water between the breaking waves and the beach. Water that has been pushed up near the beach flows together (as feeder currents), and finds a place where it can flow back out to sea. The water then flows out at a certain angle to the beach in a tight current called the "neck" of the rip, where the flow is most rapid. One of the ways this water returns to sea is to form a rip current. When the water in the rip current reaches outside of the lines of breaking waves, the flow loses power, and dissipates in what is known as the "head" of the rip. Sometimes tendrils of leftover current curve back towards the shore.

There are also other versions of rip currents, including structural currents, long-shore, outlet, and channel currents; each as dangerous as a rip current. 

Clarifying the confusion

A rip current is not the same thing as undertow, although some people use the latter term when they mean a rip current. Despite what most people think, neither a rip current nor undertow can pull a person vertically down and hold them under the water surface.

An undertow is an offshore pull that a person standing in the wave-breaking zone can feel most strongly near their feet, as each breaking wave advances towards them. As waves break, water from previous waves runs underneath them, creating a gentle current that runs back out to sea. This current is not usually strong enough to prevent the swimmer from returning to shore, unlike a rip current.

Remember, a rip current simply carries floating objects, including people, to an area outside the zone of the breaking waves.

While the terms are similar and often confused, rip currents are also different than rip tides. A rip tide is a specific type of current associated with the movement of tidal water through inlets and the mouths of estuaries, embayments, and harbors.

Check out my previous post on “Following the Motion of the Ocean” regarding tides and currents.

What’s so dangerous about a rip current?

Well, it really isn’t the rip current that is dangerous; it is the lack of knowledge and panic that is the real danger. Swimmers or floaters who are caught in a rip and who do not understand what is going on may not have the necessary water skills or knowledge to know what to do. They may panic, or may exhaust themselves by trying to swim directly against the flow of water, or a combination of all three.

In a rip current, death by drowning occurs when a person has limited water skills, or panics, or persists in trying to swim to shore against a strong rip current, eventually becoming exhausted. Because of these factors, rip currents are the leading cause of rescues by lifeguards at beaches. According to National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), over a 10-year average, rip currents cause 46 deaths annually in the United States, and 64 people died in rip currents in 2013. The United States Lifesaving Association (http://www.usla.org/) "estimates that the annual number of deaths due to rip currents on our nation's beaches exceeds 100.”



Here are links on  information about Natural Hazard Statistics for 2013 in the United States provided by NOAA National Weather Service



Know before you go

Here are some “tips on the rip” to prevent yourself from being in a state of danger.

  • Check the Surf Zone Forecast
  • Learn how to swim
    • Some people may think they know how they swim but swimming in a pool is very different than swimming at a surf beach. At a surf beach you are faced with crashing waves, winds, and dangerous currents.
  • Be aware of the signs and warning flags 
    • Make sure to look for signs and most importantly, the warning flags and know what the colors mean.





And if you are gung-ho about getting in the water…

  • Always swim where there is a lifeguard.
    • Chat with him/her about the conditions to see if it is safe to go in the water. Know where the life ring, or floatation device is
  • Always swim with a buddy or two and make sure the person waiting by your stuff has a cell phone
    • Bring your whole group in the water if you want but make sure your friend catching rays have a phone just in case
  • Learn how to recognize a rip current
    • Rip currents often look almost like a river running out to sea, away from the shore. Rip currents are easiest to notice and identify when the zone of breaking waves is viewed from a high vantage point.

Here are some key features of rip currents that are recognizable

  • There is a noticeable break in the pattern of the waves: the water often looks flat where the rip is, in contrast to the lines of breaking waves on either side of the rip.
  • A "river" of foam: the surface of the rip often looks foamy, because the water is churned up.
  • The rip usually differs in color from the surrounding water; it is often more opaque, cloudier, or muddier, and so, depending on the angle of the sun, the rip may show as darker or lighter than the surrounding water.
  • It is sometimes possible to see that foam or floating debris on the surface of the rip is moving out, away from the shore. In contrast, in the areas of breaking waves, floating objects are being pushed towards the shore.


Learn more about rip currents by taking a visit to these links:





Be smart and savvy this summer when you’re hitting the beach. When in doubt, ask a lifeguard or don’t go out (enjoy the sun and ocean breeze on the beach).