How to spot, avoid and escape a rip current
Rip currents typically form in deeper areas of the surf zone and are where the water flows back out to sea after waves have pushed water towards the shore. For your survival in the surf (and that of your potential rescuers) it is vitally important to understand how to spot and avoid rip currents and if you do get caught in one, how to get out of a rip.
If you plan to learn to surf in Australia and you're not confident in being able to spot rips, take a surf lesson with an accredited surf school where the coaches will show you examples of a rip and explain to you or your child how to spot, avoid and escape rips.
Even if you enter the surf just for a quick swim, please observe the signs on patrolled beaches warning of rips or dangerous currents before entering the water and stick to swimming only between the red and yellow flags (the safe zones patrolled by professional lifeguards).
What is a rip?
A rip is the area in the surf zone (that is normally deeper) where the flow of water moves out to sea. When a wave breaks over a shallow sandbar or reef, a large volume of water is pushed shoreward with the rolling whitewater wave. This build up of water close to the shore now has to flow back out to sea to re-balance the water level. When water gets pushed to the beach by waves, this water then flows back out to sea in the deeper rip zones.
This build up of water normally flows back out to sea first by moving sideways parallel to the shore either across a shallow sandbar or in deeper long shore gutters right on the shore. Ever entered the water and ended up in really deep water only 2 metres off the beach and then walked up onto a shallow sandbar further out? That is a long shore gutter (or feeder rip if you like). The water continues to flow sideways until it is deposited into a deeper channel in between sandbars or beside rocks in the corner of beaches.
Once in the deeper channel, the water then flows back out to sea between the shallow sandbars or beside a headland, until it is deposited back out to (and occasionally beyond) the wave breaking or impact zone - more often than not, as the water flows out to sea it normally also flows either to the left or right across onto a sandbar. Often, the bigger the surf is the stronger the rips will be (more water moving in = more water moving out), especially at low tide when huge volumes of water are 'squeezed' between shallow sandbars.
Rips don't always form and flow from the shore directly out to the horizon at a 90 degree angle from the beach. On the east coast of Australia, during and after big swell events, rip currents and uneven sandbars often form on angles or even parallel to shore and can be present for hundreds of metres along the beach. This type of inner sandbar / rip / outer sandbar formation is difficult for learning to surf in and is also dangerous for swimmers, due to the strong sideways current it presents, so swimming between the red and yellow flags is a must.
How to spot a rip?
Identify rips by:
- darker coloured water (because the water is deeper in rips than the shallower sandbars),
- less waves breaking (again because the water depth is deeper - waves break more consistently in shallow water). During low tides and in big surf often waves still break in rips. Remember that rips begin to form right on the shore, so look for zones just off the beach where the whitewater waves aren't rolling smoothly in a long straight white line, but rather, are broken up or even fade away completely before reaching the beach,
- other signs of rips can be a rippled water surface (like mini rapids gushing out to sea), or the reverse can occur, that is, smooth water surface surrounded by rougher water on either side of the rip, and
- whitewater waves moving to the beach on an angled or criss-crossed manner may indicate a rip, along with debris floating out to sea.
How do I avoid drifting into a rip?
When swimming, always swim between the red and yellow designated swimming zone at lifeguard patrolled beaches.
Also surf at lifeguard patrolled beaches where there will often be signs placed on the shore that indicate the location of the rip currents.
Once you have identified where the rips are and also the safe zone (shallow sandbar) where you are going to catch your waves, have a landmark on the beach in front of this sandbar and stick to it. The safe zones are where broad sandbars attach to the beach (indicated by where multiple whitewater waves roll to shore).
Once in the water, work out if there is a current pushing you to the left or right towards a rip - this sideways current is common, even on shallow sandbars and small wave days. After catching each wave, check your landmark to make sure you haven't drifted towards the rip, and if you have, catch a wave to the beach and walk back to your landmark before re-entering the water. Walking along the beach back to your landmark is much easier than trying to wade or paddle back against the sideways flow of water that is pushing you sideways towards the rip.
How do I get out of a rip?
If you do get caught in a rip, here is what you need to do to get back to the beach:
- Stay calm. If you panic you get tired. Remember the rip will not take you to New Zealand, Antarctica, or Africa, so if you do nothing but tread water, or lie on your surfboard when surfing, and flow with the rip you should only end up either just beyond the wave breaking zone into deep water or more likely, deposited sideways across and onto a shallow sandbar on one side of the rip.
- If you don't have the energy to swim or paddle your surfboard, raise and wave one arm and call for help if you are at a patrolled beach . Again, stay calm.
- If you have enough energy or if you are at an unpatrolled beach (remember to always surf with an experienced surfer at unpatrolled beaches), swim or paddle across to a shallow sandbar where the waves are breaking - just like you would if you were drifting downstream in a fast flowing river where you would swim across the current to the shallow river banks. Normally the water flow in a rip current moves across towards one of the sandbars on either side of the rip, so flow with the current towards that sandbar.
Many (but not all) rips form at 90 degrees from the beach (towards the horizon) so swimming across the flow of water in the rip often means you swim parallel to the beach.
- If you don't have a surfboard with you, when swimming across to a sandbar use sidestroke or breaststroke to conserve energy, to also keep an eye on your progress and also to spot and dive under any incoming waves. Make sure you move across to the middle of the sandbar to ensure that you are out of the rip. If you only move across to the edge of the sandbar you may accidentally get washed back into the rip by an incoming wave.
- If you have a surfboard, lie on it! Whether you paddle or raise your arm and call for help, conserve energy by lying on your surfboard. This sounds obvious but for some reason (perhaps out of panic) many beginners who get caught in rips get really tired as they try to swim to safety pushing their surfboard in front of them. Once again stay calm, your surfboard is your best friend at this moment, don't ditch it!
- Once you've swam or paddled onto the sandbar (or out behind the sandbar) catch a wave to the beach and take a breather. If you do head back into the water, make sure you have learnt from your previous experience and stay in front of your landmark in the safe sandbar zone. If the conditions prove too challenging, give surfing a miss for the day and come back another day when the surf is more user friendly - trust your instincts as it's good to know your limits!
Why do experienced surfers paddle out to the line up by using the rip zones?
It's true, many experienced and ocean fit surfers use rips as their 'chair lift' out beyond the wave breaking zone, this way conserving energy paddling back out after each wave. However, jumping in a rip can be extremely dangerous, especially when the surf is big - remember that even if you do get out the back you then have to catch a wave to get back in! Often we underestimate how big the waves are when we are looking from the beach (remember the point in planning your surf session about spending the time on the beach to really know how big the waves are).
Go and take a surfing lesson if you want to learn how to use rips to help you get out the back after each wave. Understand that if you are taught how to flow with rips during a surf lesson, the next time you go surfing the conditions and rip currents will most likely be totally different and one surfing lesson is not enough to be totally safe in rips. Being safe when surfing near rips takes decades of practice along with a huge dose of respect for the ocean.