Escape a Riptide first identify then plan to get out of the rip current

How to Escape a Riptide

When wind and waves push water toward the shore, that water is often forced sideways by the oncoming waves. This water streams along the shoreline until it finds a suitable exit route back out to the open water, straight out, at a right angle to the beach. This return flow of water is called a rip current. Rip currents are usually quite narrow, and are located in places such as where there is a gap in a sandbar, under piers, and along jetties.

A fairly common misconception is that rip currents are somehow able to pull a swimmer vertically down, under the surface of the water. This is not true, and in reality a rip current is strongest close to the surface. This strong surface flow tends to damp the effect of incoming waves, leading to the illusion of a calm part of the sea, without waves, which may possibly attract some swimmers to that area. The offshore path taken by a rip current can be demonstrated by placing colored dye at the start of a current at the shoreline.[3]

A more detailed description involves a quantity known as radiation stress. This is the force (or momentum flux) exerted on the water column by the presence of the wave. As a wave shoals and increases in wave height prior to breaking, radiation stress increases. To balance this, the mean surface (the water level with the wave averaged out) decreases—this is known as setdown. As the wave breaks and continues to reduce in height, the radiation stress decreases. To balance this force, the mean surface increases—this is known assetup. As a wave propagates over a sandbar with a gap (as shown in the lead image), the wave breaks on the bar, leading to setup. However, the part of the wave that propagates over the gap does not break, and thus setdown will continue. Thus, the mean surface over the bars is higher than that over the gap, and a strong flow issues outward through the gap.

Rip currents can potentially occur wherever strong longshore variability in wave breaking exists. This variability may be caused by such features as sandbars (as shown in the animated diagram above), by piers and jetties, and even by crossing wave trains. Rips tend to be more common, wider and faster, wherever (and whenever) breaking waves are large and powerful. Varying underwater topographymakes some beaches more likely to have rip currents; a few beaches are notorious in this respect.

Although rip tide is a misnomer, in areas of significant tidal range the rip currents may only occur at certain points of the tide. Too much water over the bar will not cause waves to break over the bar as, of course, will too little. If the shoreline shelves gently, the area behind the bar may vary from a few feet to a mile or more in the course of an hour or two.

Danger to swimmers

Photo of sign reading "HANAKAPIAI BEACH WARNING! DO NOT GO NEAR THE WATER UNSEEN CURRENTS HAVE KILLED 83 (displayed as 16 groups of 4 vertical lines with 1 diagonal line marking a group of 5 and three additional lines) VISITORS

Warning sign on the trail to Hanakapiai Beach.

Rip currents are a potential source of danger for people who are in shallow water with breaking waves in seas, oceans and lakes.[4] Rip currents are the cause of 80% of the rescues carried out by beachlifeguards.[5]

Rip currents typically flow at 0.5 metres per second (1–2 feet per second), but they can be as fast as 2.5 metres per second (8 feet per second), which is faster than any human can swim. However, most rip currents are fairly narrow, and even the widest rip currents are not very wide; swimmers can easily exit the rip by swimming just a few strokes at a right angle to the flow, parallel to the beach. Swimmers who are unaware of this fact may exhaust themselves trying unsuccessfully to swim against the flow.[2] The pull of the current also fades out completely at the head of the rip, outside the zone of the breaking waves, so there is a definite limit to how far the swimmer will be taken out to sea by the flow of a rip current.

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, thus eventually becoming exhausted.

According to 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.[6] However, the The United States Lifesaving Association“estimates that the annual number of deaths due to rip currents on our nation’s beaches exceeds 100.”[7]

A study published in 2013 in Australia revealed that rips killed more people on Australian territory than bushfires, floods, cyclones and shark attacks combined.[8]

Recognizing and identifying rips[edit]

A collection of rip current warning signs in the Netherlands

A warning sign in France

Rip currents have a characteristic appearance, and this means that with practice, and using careful observation, lifeguards, beachgoers, and water users can learn to notice and identify rips, thus generally being able to avoid them. Rip currents often look almost like a road or 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. Beachgoers can also talk to lifeguards, who are always watching for rip currents, and who will move their safety flags so that swimmers can avoid rips. The following are some characteristics that a person can use to visually identify a rip before entering the water:[4]

  • 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 sometimes looks foamy, because the water is churned up.
  • Different color: 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.

These characteristics are helpful in learning to recognize and understand the nature of rip currents so that a person can recognize the presence of rips before entering the water. In the US, some beaches have signs created by NOAA and USLA, explaining what a rip current is and how to escape one. These signs are entitled, “Rip Currents; Break the Grip of the Rip”.[7]

Dealing with a rip[edit]

A swimmer or floater who is caught in a rip current may notice that he or she is moving away from the shore quite rapidly. It is often not possible to swim directly back to shore against a rip current, so this is not recommended. However, contrary to some popular misunderstandings, a rip is not capable of pulling a swimmer under the water; instead it simply carries the swimmer away from the shore in a narrow channel of water.[1] The rip is like a treadmill, which the swimmer needs to step off. One effective response is to remain calm and swim parallel to the shore until the swimmer exits the rip current, which is usually not very wide. Once out of the rip, swimming back to shore is fairly easy in areas where waves are breaking and where floating objects (including swimmers) are being pushed towards the shore.[9]

As an alternative, swimmers or floaters who are caught in a strong rip can instead relax and calmly float on their back or tread water. Eventually the rip current will lose its momentum, and the swimmer is then able to signal for help by raising one arm, or to swim at a leisurely pace, in a diagonal direction, away from the rip and back to shore.[10]

It is necessary for coastal swimmers to understand the danger of rip currents, to learn how to recognize them and how to deal with them, and if possible to swim in only those areas where lifeguards are on duty.[4]


Experienced and knowledgeable water people, including some surfers, body boarders and kayakers, will sometimes use rip currents as a rapid and effortless means of transportation when they wish to leave the shoreline and get out to the zone just beyond the breaking waves.[11]

vintage adventure magazine cover man swimming riptide

Summer is drawing to a close. If you made it to the beach this year, you managed to get your tan on and survive a shark attack. Congratulations! But there is another swimming danger that you should be aware of and that is moving into its most dangerous season: the riptide.

Riptides (properly called rip currents as they’re not actually a tide), are long, narrow channels of water which move from shore to sea and can take you with them as they go. They’re much more common during hurricane season, and especially the peak of hurricane season which is August until October.

80% of all open water rescue attempts are due to riptides, and they claim over 100 victims a year. So here’s a primer on what a rip current is, how to spot one, and how to survive if you get picked up and taken for a ride.

What Is a Rip Current?

Rip currents are channels of water which flow away from the shore and out to sea. As waves come into the shore, water piles up and needs somewhere to go. Instead of returning over the reef or sandbar from which it came, the current may take the path of least resistance and be funneled into a channel between two obstacles. Here’s a handy diagram and a more technical explanation from the NOAA:

riptide gif illustration diagram

  • Waves break on the sand bars before they break in the channel area.
  • Wave breaking causes an increase in water level over the bars relative to the channel level.
  • A pressure gradient is created due to the higher water level over the bars.
  • This pressure gradient drives a current alongshore (the feeder current).
  • The longshore currents converge and turn seaward, flowing through the low area or channel between the sand bars.
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There are three kinds of rips:

Flash rip: A rip current can form suddenly and vanish just as fast due to decreasing water levels or increasing wave heights.

Fixed rip: A fixed rip, sometimes formed between sand bars, can stay in the same place for days, weeks, or even months.

Permanent Rip: In a place with a permanent obstacle like a reef, a rip may be ever present.

How to Spot a Rip Current

Riptides can occur anywhere there are breaking waves, including large lakes. Spotting a rip current is not always easy, especially to the untrained eye. So be sure to heed warnings that are posted and issued by lifeguards and the like.

Here are some things to look for along with pictures from the University of Delaware:

rip current photo diagram parts of riptide

rip current riptide photo example beachA channel of churning, foaming, or choppy water

rip current riptide shown on crowded beachA rip current will pick up things like seaweed, forming a debris conga line which moves steadily seaward

photo example of rip current riptide at beachIn addition to debris, the rip current picks and stirs up sand, so look for areas of the water that are a different color than the surrounding water

riptide rip current on beach photo exampleA break in the incoming wave pattern

How to Escape a Rip Current

As mentioned, a rip current can suddenly appear. They can also rapidly ramp up in velocity. A rip current moving at 1-2 feet per second is no cause for alarm. But it can quickly start to move at a more dangerous 3 feet per second and have even been clocked trucking along at 8 feet per second.

If you get caught in a riptide, here’s what to do:

Don’t panic. Feeling like you’re getting swept out to sea can be terrifying. But try to keep calm. Rip currents won’t pull you under — they’re just channels of moving water. And while they can extend a ways out, they do eventually dissipate, most within 50-100 feet of the shoreline. So you’re not going to wash up on the shores of a deserted island with only a volleyball for a friend.

The Basics of Cleaning Your Revolver

Don’t try to swim against the rip. Deaths that result from riptides aren’t caused by the current pulling someone under; instead, the person typically panics, starts trying to swim against the rip to get back to shore, becomes exhausted, and drowns. An 8-feet-per-second riptide is so strong that not even Michael Phelps, even when he had that amazing mustache, could swim against it. Don’t kick against the pricks.

Swim parallel to the shore. Instead of swimming against the rip current, you want to swimperpendicular to it, in either direction. Rip currents are typically only 20-100 feet wide. Once you leave the rip, swim at an angle away from it towards the shore.

Go with the flow. If you don’t have the swimming skills or energy to swim out of the rip, float on your back and go with the current. Just imagine you’re taking a spin on the Lazy River at the water park you went to as a kid. Once the rip current dissipates, you can do the parallel swim thing or try to signal to the lifeguard or someone else that you’re in need of help.

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