What is a rip current?
A rip current is basically a very strong and narrow current that pulls out to the sea. It’s nearly impossible to fight against a strong rip – it can pull you away from the beach at the speed of one to two metres per second! Rips are different from undertows, as they are visible and closer to the surface.
Rips are more common on windy days, but just because it’s nice and sunny doesn’t mean that rips can’t form – faraway hurricanes, even those hundreds of miles away, can create rips even on seemingly fine days!
Most rips are low energy rips, forming when the waves haven’t changed much. They’re usually found between sandbars. High energy rips form when there are sudden changes, like when there are storms.
There are also fixed and permanent rips that are more predictable, such as the Backpacker Express in Bondi beach. They can be found near headlands, groins, and jetties, and tend to be longer than the usual rip. Take note though: just because they’re more “predictable” doesn’t mean that they’re safer! They’re just as dangerous as any other rip.
What does a rip look like?
Lifeguards, seasoned surfers and beachgoers know how to identify a rip through several telltale signs. Once you’re familiar with these, it’s easy to tell where rip currents are so that you can avoid them.
Darker water usually means deeper water. When waves crash onto the shore, they break, and all the water that they carried has to go somewhere. What happens is that they carve out a path on the sand going back out to the ocean, which then becomes deeper than the other parts of the beach.
Gaps between waves
Spots that seem much calmer than the rest of the beach are something to be wary of! It may seem tempting to head to that one spot that doesn’t seem to have any waves, but these spots are actually a hotbed for rip currents. The reason why there aren’t any waves is because water is rushing back into the sea instead of towards the shore.
If the beach isn’t choppy or barely has any breaking waves, look out for spots with a rippled surface. This is a spot where currents are converging, pushing into each other and creating a dangerous rip current below!
Seaweed, sand, and sediment
An easy-to-spot sign of a rip current is the sandy clouds pulling out to sea. Because of its strength, a rip can gather a lot of sand along with seaweeds, sediments, and other debris, and drag these along.
How far out can a rip take you?
While rips are strong and sudden, they don’t last very long. A rip will usually break up not too far from the shore, though it will take some effort to get back. If you find yourself caught in a rip, the best thing to do is to simply ride it out rather than panicking and fighting against it.
How do you get out of a rip?
It doesn’t matter if you’re an experienced surfer, or a casual beach-goer, knowing how to get out of a rip is very important!
Always pay attention to where you’re swimming. You may start out swimming in a safe, rip-free zone, but you may get carried away by feeder currents and get pulled into a rip. If this happens, do not panic! Panicking will only waste your energy, which will actually raise your probability of drowning.
A rip will not pull you down, but rather away from the shore, so the first thing you should try to do is to stay afloat. Again, don’t panic and stay calm! Don’t try to swim against the current either; instead, use your energy to float.
If you’re quite confident with your swimming abilities, you can try to swim away from the rip. Instead of fighting against the current, swim perpendicular to the current. Remember that rips tend to be narrow, and while you can’t go against them, you might be able to swim to its edge and out of it. Instead of swimming towards the shore, swim along it and swim back only once you feel that there isn’t a pull anymore.
But if you’re a less-skilled swimmer, don’t waste your precious energy trying to escape the rip and just try to stay afloat! Try to wave to the lifeguard on duty or other swimmers so that they’re aware of where you are.
If you happen to be on the beach and you see someone caught in a rip, do not jump in immediately to help them unless you’re a professional lifeguard! Tons of people drown every year trying to save people in rips, lifeguards and emergency services already have a protocol in place to address these kinds of situations, so it's best to let them deal with it instead.
Knowing how to spot a rip and what to do in a rip will take the stress out of your beach trip! When in doubt, ask the lifeguard on duty about the spots that are safest to swim. Now go and enjoy the waves!