Riptides and Rip Currents: Overview and Safety Tips

How to Escape a Rip Tide - How to Escape a Rip Current


If you frequent the beach on a regular basis, chances are that you’ve seen a rip tide or rip current – the two terms are used interchangeably. I grew up hearing the term rip tide, but the more modern version is rip current. Riptides can be deadly. They’re responsible for 100-150 deaths in the U.S. each year. In Florida, where beaches on the Atlantic and on the Gulf of Mexico abound, riptides are responsible for more deaths each year than hurricanes, tornadoes, and lightning strikes combined. Many people believe that riptides suck swimmers underwater, but this isn’t actually the case. The most powerful part of riptides is on and near the surface. The danger with getting caught in rip currents is being pulled out to sea. Many people who drown in a rip tide do so because they panic and try to fight the rip tide.

Riptides can occur in any body of water that has wave action. This includes oceans, bays, gulfs, seas, and even large lakes. If there are waves, there can be rip currents. Generally speaking, the stronger the waves are, the stronger any rip currents will be. Offshore storms can also have an effect on riptides, making them more dangerous, especially at low tide. Riptides can be formed by storms that are hundreds of miles offshore, so you might not even be aware of them.

Riptides vary in strength and speed. A mild rip tide might travel at just one foot per second, while an especially swift rip tide might travel as fast as eight feet per second. Most riptides fall somewhere between these two extremes.

Do you know how to escape a rip current?
Do you know how to escape a rip current?
Any water that has waves can have dangerous riptides.
Any water that has waves can have dangerous riptides.

What forms a rip current?

 

A rip tide begins with the action of the waves and the wind. Both these forces push water onto the adjacent beach. As more waves push towards the shoreline, the previous set of waves is sometimes pushed sideways. This water wants to return to the sea, but it can’t do so against the onslaught of waves, so it travels parallel to the beach until it finds an escape route. This exit is usually in a trough, like one formed between two sandbars, but it can also be underneath a dock. The returning water might also find a way to return to the ocean next to jetties or other structures. A rip tide always travels perpendicular to the beach.

Rip currents are fast and strong because the returning volume of water is usually forced into a narrow channel. The water has nowhere else to go, so all of it must “fit” into this narrow current, which greatly increases the speed and force.

Hurricanes, tornadoes, and tropical storms can all cause riptides to form.
Hurricanes, tornadoes, and tropical storms can all cause riptides to form.

How to recognize riptides

 

The ironic thing about some riptides is that they actually appear to be calmer than the rest of the ocean or lake water. The powerful flow of water on and near the surface of a rip current has the potential to decrease the size and power of the normal incoming waves, making the surf in the rip tide appear less virulent. Some swimmers – and non-swimmers – see this calm patch of water and feel compelled to experience it.

Some riptides also stir up sand, making the water in the abnormal current muddy. If you see an area of water that’s calm and muddy, stay away from it. It might very well be a rip current.

If you’re swimming in water with wave action, always avoid any areas of water that appear to be unusually calm or different than the rest of the surf. Also, don’t swim near piers, docks, or jetties.

 

A rip tide can form underneath a pier or dock.
A rip tide can form underneath a pier or dock.

How to escape a rip current

 

You don’t have to be in deep water to be overtaken by a rip tide. In fact, waist-deep is deep enough for a strong rip tide to drag you out to sea. In light of this, it’s entirely possible for non-swimmers to be drowned by a rip tide. If you can’t swim, or if you’re a weak swimmer, always wear a flotation device when entering an ocean, gulf, sea, bay, or large lake. Remember – if there are waves, riptides are always a possible threat.

Even good swimmers can be drowned by a rip current. This is usually due to panic and exhaustion. Oftentimes, when the swimmer realizes he’s being dragged out to sea, he panics and tries to swim back to the safety of the shore. This is the worst thing to do. You can’t outswim a rip tide head-on. All you’ll do in such an effort is to wear yourself out, and the rip tide will win.

Instead of trying to swim against the powerful force of a rip tide, try to remain calm and swim parallel to the beach. Once you’re out of the rip tide, you can then return to shallow water or the shore. Most riptides are less than thirty feet in width, fortunately.

If you find yourself in a rip tide that you can’t escape, even by swimming parallel to shore, stay calm and float on your back. If you don’t know how to float, allow the rip tide to carry you, but keep your head above water by gently paddling with the flow. The rip tide will lose its power eventually. When it does, swim back to shore on the diagonal. If you’re too tired to swim, allow the action of the incoming waves to carry you back to shore. Signal for help if you need to.

It’s best to always swim where lifeguards are present. Also, never swim alone. If you’re not a strong swimmer, wear a proper flotation device. Whether you’re a good swimmer or not, make sure you and your family understand the rules about escaping a rip tide.

Once the rip tide has released you, you can swim calmly back to shore.
Once the rip tide has released you, you can swim calmly back to shore.

How to escape a rip tide:

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Comments 19 comments

prasetio30 profile image

prasetio30 5 years ago from malang-indonesia

Wow... this is so beautiful. I never heard about this phenomenon. Thanks for writing this. I really enjoy this information. You always come up with useful information. And natural phenomenon is my favorite. I found this through your hub. The world is so beautiful. Vote up. God bless you.

Blessing and hugs, prasetio


drbj profile image

drbj 5 years ago from south Florida

Thanks for this excellent advice, Holle, you may have saved someone's life.

Although riptides are common off the ocean beaches of Florida, many swimmers who are caught in them drown from exhaustion because they try to swim against the rip tide rather than parallel to the beach as you suggest.


habee profile image

habee 5 years ago from Georgia Author

Prasetio, how have you been, my friend? Great to hear from you!

Drbj, my mom was caught in a rip current at Savannah years ago. she was a good swimmer, but my uncle had to save her. My dad couldn't swim.


Nellieanna profile image

Nellieanna 5 years ago from TEXAS

Habee - I am so terrified of large bodies of very deep and restless water, I hope to never experience one of those. My two experiences of the Atlantic (in Florida and in Connecticut) - and one of the Gulf of Mexico at Padre Island were somewhat traumatic. I did better looking at the Pacific which was - pacific at the time, but was not put to the test of actually experiencing any of it.

Your pictures and description, though - are so vivid and really impressive. I'm glad I came and saw.

I love to swim and have an instinctive feel for relaxing and floating but it has never been put to a real test. I doubt I'd ever be in a riptide unless it came and snatched me from the shore, on which I might not be, either. LOL I really am a landlubber and prefer my waters in lakes, streams, tubs and swimming pools.


Pamela99 profile image

Pamela99 5 years ago from United States

Holle, This is a well written article that gives some very important information. Raising three boys in Jacksonville Florida we are very familiar with riptides and always were told to swim parallel to the shore. Every year it seems like at least one person drowns and are usually from up north and they don't know what to do when they get caught in a rip tide. I think this helpful helpful people. Rated up.


Nellieanna profile image

Nellieanna 5 years ago from TEXAS

By the way, Habee - prior to reading this, all I knew of riptides I learned from reading "Prince of Tides" and other Pat Conroy books. He was born in Atlanta, of course, lived in other Tidewater states and set his books in that environment. He's a gifted writer.


DzyMsLizzy profile image

DzyMsLizzy 5 years ago from Oakley, CA

Hi, there, Habee!

Great and valuable information. I grew up in San Francisco, California, very near the Pacific Ocean. I loved going to the beach.

Out here, we have more danger from undertow than rip currents, although those are possible as well.

An undertow happens when there is a steep drop-off not too far offshore. This is the case along much of California's coast. (I'm not familiar with conditions in Oregon, Washington or Mexico.)

In the case of an undertow, the receeding water picks up speed as it hits the drop-off, and the incoming tide barrels in on top. The resulting current is very turbulent, and you can, indeed, get sucked under. Surfers call it getting 'boiled' because the action is much like the rolling boil in a pot of water on the stove.

Adding to the danger is the fact that most of our beaches have no lifeguards. There are warning signs posted, but that's all. People are at full risk of their own stupidity in challenging the tides.

As you point out, the main cause of death is panic. This is true in virtually every emergency situation.

If you realize you are being pulled under, take as big a gulp of air as you can before you go down, and don't waste energy trying to fight it. You WILL pop back up, most likely some distance from shore.

You may be able to body-surf back on the incoming breakers, or, as you suggest, try to swim diagonally back to the beach.

Some reference sites claim that 'undertow' is another, and incorrect, name for a rip current. This is not the case. The causes are different.

The way to save yourself, the same: Don't panic!

With spring just around the corner, and summer on its heels, this is a very timely and valuable bit of information! Thanks for this hub. Voted up and useful!


habee profile image

habee 5 years ago from Georgia Author

Nellieanna, I really enjoyed your comments! Pat Conroy is one of my fave authors! I'm just about to read Beach Music now!


habee profile image

habee 5 years ago from Georgia Author

Pam, living in Jax, I'm sure you've had lots of experiences with riptides. Thanks for reading!


habee profile image

habee 5 years ago from Georgia Author

Lizzy, you're right - many folks get riptides and undertow confused. I like beaches with neither! lol


GarnetBird profile image

GarnetBird 5 years ago from Northern California

I got caught in a rip tide when I was 16, near San Clemente. I was able to swim out, but a patrol boat followed me to the shore just in case. Good Hub!


Hello, hello, profile image

Hello, hello, 5 years ago from London, UK

Thank you, Holle, for a very detailed and important hub. A great advice about swimming alng the beack. I would have never thought about it.


habee profile image

habee 5 years ago from Georgia Author

Garnet, I know you must have been terrified!


habee profile image

habee 5 years ago from Georgia Author

I guess you have riptides over there, too. Supposedly, they can be anywhere waves exist.


Yourglobalgirl profile image

Yourglobalgirl 5 years ago from UK

Very helpful info and particularly so on not trying to swim against the rip current. I got caught in something similar a few years ago and it really is your natural reaction to swim against the current as you realise what is happening, then I stopped and swam diagonal to it and was fine.


habee profile image

habee 5 years ago from Georgia Author

True, Globalgirl. My mom almost drowned in a rip tide that way. I guess it's hard not to try to swim out of rip currents because it's your first instinct.


amynichter profile image

amynichter 5 years ago from Canton, Ohio

Excellent article! While we were down in Watercolor (Santa Rosa Beach, Florida) last month, there was a rip tide drowning near Panama City Beach. A gentleman had gone swimming in the surf even though the double flags were up. They found him but couldn't revive him.


habee profile image

habee 4 years ago from Georgia Author

Oh, Amy, that's terrible! Everyone needs to know how to escape a rip tide.


Victoria 4 years ago

Very awesome info & SO IMPORTANT, I have children & I'm always filling up on info to keep them safe. I will most definently share this site with my family & friends. Thank you for ALL this wonderful info.-

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