Rip currents

For many people, the beach is a happy memory of a vacation or weekend getaway. But that fun can turn into a nightmare far too quickly.

Rip currents are often invisible threats that can sweep even the strongest swimmer out to sea.

More than 80 percent of the victims that surf beach lifesavers rescue needed help because of a rip current. Over 100 people die every year because of rip currents, according to the United States Lifesaving Association.

What is a rip current?

As waves travel from deep to shallow water, they will break near the shoreline. When waves break strongly in some locations and weakly in others, this can cause circulation cells which are seen as rip currents: narrow, fast-moving belts of water traveling offshore.

They typically extend from the shoreline, through the surf zone, and past the line of breaking waves and they can push hundreds of yards offshore. They can be very narrow or more than 50 yards wide.

The strength and speed of a rip current generally increases with higher, more frequent waves, and they are likely to be the most dangerous during high surf conditions.

Some clues that may indicate the presence of a rip current include a channel of churning, choppy water; an area with a noticeable difference in water color; a line of foam, seaweed or debris moving steadily seaward; and a break in the incoming wave pattern. However, these signs are not always visible.

Rip currents can occur at any beach with breaking waves, including the Great Lakes.

A rip current is a horizontal current. Rip currents do not pull people under the water; they pull people away from shore. Drowning deaths occur when people pulled offshore are unable to keep themselves afloat and swim to shore.

What can I do to protect myself and my family?

  • Learn how to swim and don't swim alone. Even good swimmers can get into trouble in the water, so be alert and cautious at all times, especially when there's no lifeguard.
  • Whenever possible, swim at lifeguard-protected beaches and obey all instructions from lifeguards.
  • Consider using polarized sunglasses when at the beach. They will help you to spot signatures of rip currents by cutting down glare and reflected sunlight off the ocean’s surface.
  • Pay especially close attention to children and elderly when at the beach. Even in shallow water, wave action can cause loss of footing.

What do I do if I am caught in a rip current?

  • Remain calm. Panicking will only exhaust you; you need to conserve energy for the swim back to shore.
  • Don’t fight the current by trying to swim straight to shore. Escape the current by swimming in a direction following the shoreline. When free of the current, swim at an angle away from the current toward shore.
  • If you are unable to escape by swimming, float or tread water. When the current weakens, swim at an angle away from the current toward shore. If you cannot reach the shore, draw attention to yourself by facing the shore and calling or waving for help.

What do I do if I see someone caught in a rip current?

  • Many people have died trying to rescue rip current victims. If you see someone in trouble, get help from a lifeguard. If there is no lifeguard, yell instructions on how to escape.
  • Throw the victim something that floats.
  • Have someone call 911.

 Sources: NOAA, US Lifesaving Association, National Sea Grant program