NC Outer Banks: Beware of Rip Tides

Growing up near the NC Outer Banks, my family understood rip tides. We knew to be careful in the ocean, and we were taught from a young age what to do if we were ever caught by the rip tides.

Fortunately I don't recall personally experiencing the rip tides. But I do have friends who have lost family members due to the ocean's under tow. It still amazes me that more information is not prominent in each and every hotel room and rental property warning of the dangers of ocean swimming.

When swimming at the Outer Banks, beware of undertow currents or rip tides. These currents can be extremely dangerous and even experienced swimmers can be pulled out to sea.

What is a Rip Tide?

Three main types of currents occur along the Outer Banks: littoral, backwash, and seaward. Littoral currents are common and move southward. A backwash current on a steeply sloping beach can pull swimmers toward deeper water, but its power is swiftly checked by incoming waves.

Rip tides, or seaward currents, are the most dangerous currents, and though not as common as backwash and littoral currents, rip tides will carry a swimmer out from shore, sometimes at an angle.

Should you be caught in an undertow current, swim parallel to the shoreline until you are out of the current, then swim diagnolly to shore. If you cannot swim out of the current, float with it until it loses strength, usually just beyond the breaker line. Then swim diagnollay to shore.

Listen to local radio stations for information about surf conditions, and look for red warning flags posted along the beaches.

Life guards are not posted at all public beach accesses, so always swim with a partner.

Personally, I'm not much of an ocean swimmer anymore anyway. I prefer chlorine to marine life to keep me company under water.

Copyright Dineane Whitaker 2008 - Please do not copy and paste this article, but feel free to post a link using this url:

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Nataleigh CF profile image

Nataleigh CF 8 years ago

Great post! My family is going to OBX next week so you bet I will forward this to them! Amazing how some simple info can save a life!

dineane profile image

dineane 8 years ago from North Carolina Author

Thanks, Nataleigh, I hope your family enjoys the NC Coast--it's a pretty amazing place! They might like my travel hub about the Outer Banks, too

DonnaCSmith profile image

DonnaCSmith 8 years ago from Central North Carolina

I had not thought of that, but you are right. They should put notices in all the hotel rooms.

C.S.Alexis profile image

C.S.Alexis 8 years ago from NW Indiana


The rip tides are really something in Lake Michigan and we see people get caught up in them every year here. It is sad, and usually a deadly encounter. They always post warnings and announce bulletins but people do not always head the warnings. The knowledge of currents and how to swim with them instead of against them will save your life. Thank you for sharing this life saving info, especially with the summer on our doorstep. C.S. Alexis

Gin 7 years ago

Your post is very true...!! but swimmers should be aware that under tows and rip tides or rip currents are very different a rip current is a strong channel of water flowing away from the shoreline, typically through the surf line, and can occur on any shore that has breaking waves. The water flows seaward from near the shore (not to be confused with an undertow. You can see a rip cureent usually... the water is choppy and dirty from the stirred up sand. They usually prevent waves from breaking so there could be a split in the water. A undertow (often and incorrectly used for a rip current) is a strong subsurface flow of water returning seaward from the shore resulting usually from wave action. The rip tides can be seen from the surface and are in a path going back to the sea... a undertow is under the surface and ends quickly with the new crashing and incoming waves. The rip current is obviously the more dangerous of the two but both can be fatal. the undertows are very common... you can always feel the pull of the water back out so I guess its easy to see why but luckily they arent quite as dangerous.

deac& 6 years ago

seeking information if the waters off the outer banks are more dangerous than many other places are there signs that report the number of drownings?

martin 6 years ago

Two of my children and I were swept out into deep water by a rip current the Tuesday before hurricane Earl came.

My son and I had boogie boards but my daughter had nothing. I swam to her , put the leash on her arm and told her to keep kicking and paddling until she gets in. the same weent for my son. However, by the time I had ensured they were able to get on their baord and get in, I was at least 100 yds from the shore line. I was also wore out from treading water. I screamed for help but no one could hear me. Long story short I spent all my energy fighting the current instead of swimmiing parallel to the shore line. I had been taught that before but I panicked and it took me a long time to get in against that current. I finally made it to sand and am alive and well. Thank God!

dineane profile image

dineane 6 years ago from North Carolina Author

Martin, I'm so glad you and your children are ok! Too often similar stories end in tragedy, and I agree, I wish more swimmers were taught about rip tides before they find themselves in trouble.

Heidi 6 years ago

Okay - our rip current story.

This past June, 2010, in my sister and 10 year old son were splashing in waist deep waves near our rental house in Buxton. There were no lifeguards for miles, and none in particular at that time at Lighthouse Beach.

I was a mere 20 feet away, trying to learn to surf. They found themselves fighting a rip current, unable to stand, unable to get back to shore. My husband heard their cries and rushed headlong - but my wise sister sent him back for one of the boogie boards drying in the sand. Using the boogie board for flotation (a small thing to support the weight of 2 1/2 adults) after a long tiring battle with the current, they all made it back to shore safely - meanwhile I was yards away, totally oblvious to the drama that enfolded so near by.

My intrepid sister who has visited OBX for years, swimming solo in all kinds of waves, said never before had she felt that the ocean she loved so well was going to kill her.

Its odd, but it took a few days for the enormity of the event to really take hold in me. Folks, my family is reconsidering whether we will return to OBX in 2011.

Too many drownings in the last couple years. We all know it.

I'm going to soapbox now, and declare that OBX needs more lifeguards and they need them now. There needs to be a lifeguard every mile or 2 or 10. Compare the OBX lifeguard philosophy with, say, the DelMarVa region, which post lifeguards every 100 yards or so. Charge a $1 tax on every rental or some similar method to fund it.

Anyway, just the two cents from a Mom from Baltimore.

liz 6 years ago

Yes they should have lifeguards.

Cage SC 5 years ago

I'm a bit torn about the lifeguards.

First, I don't see how you could have enough to cover the entire OBX area at 1 LG every 100 yds as would be needed, not to mention the Relief LGs that would be needed to provide breaks.

Secondly, I'm from out West and have seen this sort of thing along canyons and in geyser areas where these once pristine and beautiful sights are now marred with fencing because people can't or won't read and heed signs that state the area ahead is wild, natural and dangerous.

DonnaCSmith profile image

DonnaCSmith 5 years ago from Central North Carolina

I haven't thought about it before, but you're right, this info should be posted in hotel rooms, cottages, and campgrounds.

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