Demystifying Rip Currents – discover how to survive one

There is alot talked about rip currents, some of which is inaccurate. This blog is designed to dispel some of the myths.

Definition of Rip Currents

Waves that break on beaches create currents in the surf zone. The surf zone is defined as the region between the shoreline and the point where the waves are breaking.

Rip currents are seaward-directed flows of water driven by breaking waves that originate close to the shoreline and extend seaward across the surf zone, and beyond. Lifeguards commonly refer to them as ‘a body of water flowing out to sea’ following ‘a path of least resistance’.

How to spot a rip current

1. Darker patches in the water beside shallower sandbars

2. Rippled or churned water without breaking waves

3. Formation of foam

4. Bits of debris floating out to sea

5. Brown discoloured water where the sand beneath has been disturbed.

The video above illustrates some of the Rip Basics

Open-coast beach rips at low-tide during the summer of 2013 – Porthtowan, Cornwall.

5 RNLI Top Tips to Escape Rip Currents

  1. Swim between the yellow and red flags on a lifegaurded beach

2. Alert Others

If you’re struggling in a rip current, always raise your hand and shout for help. Even if you feel able to get out of it, it pays to have others ready to help.  Keep hold of anything that floats such as a surfboard.

3.  Don’t Exhaust Yourself

If you try to swim against the force of a rip you’ll lose energy very quickly. Stay calm and float on your back until your get your breath back and assess the situation.

4.  How Deep Is The Water

If you are able to stand, wade out of the current, don’t swim. Rips can flow at 4-5mph, which is faster than an Olympic swimmer!

5.  Swim Parallel to the shore

If the water is too deep to stand and you can swim, swim across the direction of the current, parallel to the shore, until you are free. Use any breaking waves to help you get back to the beach.  If you need to catch your breath first, relax and float for around 60-90 seconds. Some rip currents recirculate rather than flow out to sea and may bring you closer to shore.

Calling for Help

If you notice someone in the water who appears in difficulty, rather than enter the water yourself and get into difficulty or put other people’s lives in danger summon help first by either calling ‘999’ or ‘112’ ask for the Coastguard (Coastal areas or the River Thames). For inland water (eg rivers, lakes, canals, loch’s, quarries) ask for the Fire Service.

More useful links:

Find your nearest lifeguarded beach

Do you know what to do if you saw someone in difficulty in the water?

Cold Water shock

It’s hot out there what to do if you get into difficulty? – Thanet Community Safety


Photo credits RNLI/Andy Perryman

Thanks to the Dynamics of Rips and Implications for Beach Safety website- The DRIBS project was funded by a Natural Environment Research Council partnership research grant (code: NE/HOO4262/1) with the Royal National Lifeboat Institution.