Rip currents affect all surfers and beginners who surf beach breaks. Getting caught in one can be a terrifying and potentially fatal experience, but with the right knowledge you can easily learn how to navigate them safely. To find out more about the science of rip currents we spoke to Eleanor Woodward, a PhD Researcher at the School of Marine Science and Engineering in Plymouth and Dr. Tim Scott from DRIBS (Dynamics of Rips and Implications for Beach Safety).
What is a rip current?
Rip currents are fast flowing surface currents that flow from the beach or shore out to sea and can be very dangerous to water users. They are like a river flowing or ripping their way out through the surf away from the beach.
Why and how do they happen?
They are caused by breaking waves and are often found on beaches with sandbars and troughs. As waves break on shallower sandbars, water levels rise at the shoreline creating currents that flow sideways from the sandbar region toward the deeper channels between sandbars (or alongside headlands or structures such as groynes), where fewer waves are breaking. The rip currents then flow out through the channels towards the sea.
How far out do they go?
Rip currents can travel beyond the breaking waves, where the force of the current dissipates quickly and loses energy. Research has also shown that rip currents often circulate within the surf zone and don’t always flow out beyond the waves. The strongest part of the rip current is the flow within the surf zone. Rip currents alongside structures, such as headlands, can take you further offshore than an open beach rip.
Can you see them?
Yes, rip currents are visible if you know what to look for. The following tips can help you identify rip currents and enter the water away from them:
- A lack of breaking waves.
- Darker/deeper patches of water.
- Churned up sand or suspended sediment moving out to sea.
- Rippled or choppy water.
- Calm looking areas of water.
- Foam or froth streaking out to sea on the surface of the water.
Why are they dangerous?
Rip currents can happen suddenly without people noticing, dragging people into to deeper water very quickly. Rips can flow up to 4 mph (average swimmer moves at 1mph) and it is very difficult to swim against one. Panic can overcome people when they are caught in a rip current, and the initial immediate reaction is to swim against it directly back to shore. This is tiring, hard work and not recommended. This is often the reason people drown, because they become exhausted and cannot stay afloat.
What should I expect if I get caught in a rip current?
Imagine being in a river going out to sea that is flowing just a little too fast for you to swim against. It is strong and powerful and can feel quite fast if you are aware of it. Often people are initially unaware of being caught in a rip until they either feel the seabed moving beneath them or they find themselves in deeper water, further out in the bigger waves.
What should I do if I get caught? How do I get out of it?
Firstly, do not panic. It’s easy to say, but panic leads to irrational decisions and can often worsen your situation. Follow these steps to survival:
- Stay calm, don’t panic.
- Hold on to any floatation devices such as bodyboards or surfboards – they could save your life.
- If there are lifeguards or other surfers, float on your back and raise an arm or shout for help.
- If there is nobody around, work out which way the current is flowing and do one of two options:
- Swim/paddle parallel to the shore, moving across the flow of the rip current. Imagine the river again – don’t swim against the current, swim to the banks of the river, or in this case, swim towards the breaking waves (over the shallower sand bars), they will push you back in to shore.
- Float and wait for the current to lose power, and then swim in with the waves.
- If in doubt, breaking waves should always push you back to shore, so head towards them.
- DO NOT swim or paddle directly back against the rip current towards the shore, you will become very tired and potentially end up in difficultly.
Top tips for avoiding currents:
- Try to go to a lifeguarded beach and swim or bodyboard between the red and yellow flags, and surf between the black and white flags. Lifeguards place these flags on the biggest sandbank possible away from rip currents.
- Enter the water where waves are breaking – calm looking water is often the beginning of the rip current
- Spend a few minutes looking at the sea for signs of choppy/rippled water, a lack of breaking waves, or suspended sediment. This is often easier from a height or clifftop.
- Try to keep in contact with the seabed unless you are catching a wave. If you float on bodyboards or surfboards you will become more susceptible to rip currents.
- Be especially careful at low tide particularly in Devon and Cornwall, as the rip current risk is heightened.
- Know your limits and don’t go in the water if it looks too dangerous.
Rip currents do NOT drag people under the water. They are a surface current and the only reason people go under the water is because they have become exhausted from swimming/paddling against the rip current and cannot stay afloat.
RIPTIDES do not exist. Rip currents are not a tide, although they are affected by tides (low tide generally means stronger more prominent rip currents), they are not a movement due to the gravitational pull of the moon.
Sandbanks do NOT collapse. Larger sets of breaking waves can raise water levels and cause the rip current to pulse, moving more water. Due to this, the seabed appears to drop away and people find themselves moved out of their depth by the rip current pulse.
Find out more…
For more rip current information, images, videos and science check out www.ripcurrents.co.uk which was developed by Dr. Tim Scott and the RNLI as part of a collaborative project researching the Dynamics of Rip Currents and their Implications for Beach Safety (DRIBS).