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Rip Current Escape– Safe Ocean Swimming

Updated on August 16, 2013

Beautiful Calm Seas Can Be Deceiving

Calm seas at Cape Hatteras National Seashore. Watch for signs of rip currents even when the sea looks calm.
Calm seas at Cape Hatteras National Seashore. Watch for signs of rip currents even when the sea looks calm. | Source

The Bridge to Paradise - NC Beaches

You can smell the salty air of the Atlantic as soon as you cross the Wright Memorial Bridge onto the Outer Banks. Even now, after all these years, when I hear the gulls calling and feel the damp ocean air blowing through my hair, I feel as if I’m leaving behind the mundane world and crossing the bridge to paradise.

Spending summer vacations on the Jersey Shore, I’ve been swimming in the ocean ever since I can remember. Floating on the swells, the ocean buoyed me up and made me feel safe. I never feared drowning in salt water, even in rough surf and wild foaming water.

The Importance of Beach Safety

Through the years, I fearlessly swam alone in the Atlantic while my husband fished or slept on the beach. Often the waves carried me out over my head and I calmly floated back towards shore on the incoming waves. Swimming from the beaches of the Cape Hatteras National Seashore could be dangerous, though, and my more cautious husband was more aware of beach safety and on the lookout for the foamy signs of rip currents. As we got older, I had less confidence in my ability to swim, but I still believed that I could always make my way to safety.

Don't Let Children Play Near Rip Currents

Our granddaughter sand surfing at Cape Hatteras National Seashore. Parents should be aware that rip currents are dangerous even in shallow water. Watch where children play!
Our granddaughter sand surfing at Cape Hatteras National Seashore. Parents should be aware that rip currents are dangerous even in shallow water. Watch where children play! | Source

Deceivingly Calm NC Beach

One blue September morning we drove down to enjoy Coquina Beach near Bodie Lighthouse, one of North Carolina's beautiful Outer Banks beaches on the Cape Hatteras National Seashore. Although we were alone on the beach, we felt quite comfortable swimming in the ocean that day. The water looked calm and clear, and there were no visible signs of rip currents.

Caught in the Rip Current

As usual, my husband stayed fairly close to me as I floated on top of the swells, catching my hand if I seemed to be drifting out too far. Enjoying the blue sky, I was floating on my back looking out to sea when he called to me to come back as I was suddenly moving away too fast. I turned and started to swim back, but realized that the current was carrying me away faster than I could swim. I reached for him, but we couldn’t touch hands and in an instant I was out over my head and being pulled away from shore while he had trouble standing or moving against the current. He realized that he didn’t have a chance of saving me if he tried to swim to me, so he called to me that he was going to shore to get a floating raft. The scariest moment of my life was seeing him heading to shore while I was being pulled out to sea. I panicked once and and went under, then brought myself up and tried to ride the swells.

Dangerous Angry Seas

Angry Seas at Cape Hatteras before Hurricane Ophelia. Keep out of the water!
Angry Seas at Cape Hatteras before Hurricane Ophelia. Keep out of the water! | Source

The Atlantic ~ Friend or Foe?

Looking out to sea and feeling myself moving away from shore, my thought was, “I never thought the ocean would try to kill me! I never thought I would die by drowning!” I wasn’t ready for this!

At that point, Bill yelled back to me, “Swim sideways, swim sideways!” Of course! This is the classic way to escape a riptide, one that all the safety posters advocated. Swim parallel to the shore until you are out of it. Even though I’m not a strong swimmer, I began to swim parallel to the shore. When swells lifted me, I swam with them as much as I could and suddenly there was sand under my feet and I was out of the current just as Bill came running back into the water with the raft.

How to Spot a Rip Current ~ Signs of a Rip Current

Rip currents can occur in the oceans, the Gulf or even the Great Lakes. Even though the water is otherwise calm, there may still be rip currents. They can often be spotted from shore if you look for the following signs before entering the water:

  • Calm patches in the surf with waves breaking on either side
  • Rippled or criss-crossed water
  • Discolored water
  • Foamy water
  • Adjacent sand bars

If you can see rip currents, be sure to enter the water well away from them, and as you swim, keep aware of where you are in relationship to the current. It is easy to drift into them without realizing it before it's too late.

Enjoy the Beach, But Put Safety First!

Although I was unhurt, the frightening experience made my legs and stomach quiver. It was the end of our swimming for the day, and many weeks before I could close my eyes and not feel the water pulling me out to sea.

I still love the ocean and still go swimming in it, but I’m much more careful about watching for rip currents and I keep out of rough water. I never go swimming alone, and pay close attention to the depth of the water. Perhaps in comparison to others who have lived through danger, this doesn’t qualify as a near-death experience, but in my mind, it was a very close call that I don’t care to go through again.

Escaping a Rip Current

How to Escape a Rip Current

If you get caught in a rip current, remember to:

  • Stay calm
  • Float with the current, don't try to swim against it
  • If there are lifeguards or others on the beach, raise one hand and signal for help.
  • Swim parallel to the beach until you are out of the current and then swim at an angle away from the current towards the beach.

Rip currents can move faster than an Olympic swimmer at speeds of up to 8 feet per second. It is impossible to swim against them, and it's better to expend energy staying afloat than to try to swim back to shore.

Beach Safety - Be Aware of Rip Currents!

Break the Grip of the Rip -
Break the Grip of the Rip -

© 2011 Stephanie Henkel


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    • Stephanie Henkel profile imageAUTHOR

      Stephanie Henkel 

      6 years ago from USA

      cobotoozswimwear - Glad you found this advice useful! Thanks for stopping in to read and comment.

    • cobotoozswimwear profile image

      Mark Keane 

      6 years ago from Glasgow

      Really sound advice

    • Stephanie Henkel profile imageAUTHOR

      Stephanie Henkel 

      9 years ago from USA

      ElleBee - It's wonderful that you have certified lifeguards in your family during your beach vacations! I believe that learning to swim is a vital life skill, and those who carry it farther with lifeguard training are to be commended. Thanks for commenting, and do have a safe and delightful time at the shore!

    • profile image


      9 years ago

      This is a great article, with lots of important info for swimmers and beach lovers. It always amazes me how many people don't take the necessary precautions when heading to the beach with kids. My whole extended family goes down to the shore for a few weeks every year, and even though we swim at a protected beach we're always happy to have a half dozen certified or formerly certified lifeguards in the family!

    • Stephanie Henkel profile imageAUTHOR

      Stephanie Henkel 

      10 years ago from USA

      Thanks for you kind comments, Dolores. I love the ocean, too, and can't wait until I can get to the beach again! Lucky for me, the weather and water is usually warm enough to swim in until late October. But I will watch out for rip currents, especially with all the storms brewing in the Atlantic at this time of year. Thanks for stopping by.

    • Dolores Monet profile image

      Dolores Monet 

      10 years ago from East Coast, United States

      Voted up and awesome. This is very important information for anyone swimming in the ocean. I love to swim in the ocean and sure keep my eye out for rips, which can appear quite suddenly. I wrote a bit about rips in my bodysurfing hub and wound up drawing my own pretty pathetic sketch. I love yours. It looks so official!

    • Stephanie Henkel profile imageAUTHOR

      Stephanie Henkel 

      10 years ago from USA

      Eiddwen - I will be pleased if story makes people more aware of the dangers of rip currents. Thanks for your comment and your vote!

      Hreichel - The OBX beaches are wonderful, and I wouldn't ever want to discourage anyone from enjoying them. Rip current awareness is a necessary part of swimming safety at the beach. As an ex-lifeguard, I know you're aware of the dangers of ocean currents, and I'm glad to hear that you are closely watching your children. Many of the OBX beaches do not have lifeguards, and extra care must be taken. Thanks for your comments!

    • Hreichel profile image

      Heather Reichel 

      10 years ago from Northwestern Pennsylvania

      Great reminder Stephanie. We have been fortunate to have not had this OBX experience. It sounds utterly horrifying and I bet your husband was just as terrified! I keep a close watch on the kids while they play in the surf and the ex-lifeguard in me is always wary. I am voting this thumbs up and useful

    • Eiddwen profile image


      10 years ago from Wales

      Hi a great hub and so very useful.

      Nothing like a true story to get people to take heed.I vote up without a doubt and here's to a long time of hub sharing on here.

      Take care


    • Stephanie Henkel profile imageAUTHOR

      Stephanie Henkel 

      10 years ago from USA

      Hello Alastar,

      Your experience sounds frightening - I'm so glad that you had the boogie board to keep you afloat until help arrived and you were able to get to shore. It's amazing how quickly the water currents can carry you outward or sideways.

      Thanks you for your comments and for visiting my hubs!

    • Alastar Packer profile image

      Alastar Packer 

      10 years ago from North Carolina

      What a great hub! Thank goodness for your husbands efforts and you knowing to swim parallel to shore. And what a coincidence Stephanie! I was just down to Sunset and got caught in the worst undertow/current I've ever experienced. Was on a boogie board with my face to the sky when suddenly the middle of the pier came into view--momentarily panicking I jumped off and tried to swim against the current--useless--but then quickly grabbed the board that was attached at the wrist and let the tow take me in closer to shore. One man was already coming to help and several people had looks of fright. Panic is a killer. Oh, also congrats on your bluebird hub coming back so strong at on Pets & Animals--will check it out this week..:D

    • Stephanie Henkel profile imageAUTHOR

      Stephanie Henkel 

      10 years ago from USA

      Hi Gail,

      Through the years I've had some of my best times at the beach and swimming in the ocean. I'm glad this experience didn't spoil my love of the ocean, but it certainly did make me more cautious!

      You brought up a good point when you mentioned reminding ourselves each year about how to avoid rip currents and how to escape them. If the safety measures are fresh in our minds, we'll be more likely to remember them when we need them.

      Thanks once again for your thoughtful comments!

    • Happyboomernurse profile image

      Gail Sobotkin 

      10 years ago from South Carolina

      Great hub and I'm glad you shared your personal experience in such a vivid manner. Good thing your husband was there to alert you to the current and remind you to swim sideways. Must have been really scary for the both of you.

      I think what you wrote was even more powerful because until the moment the rip current took you, you had no fear of the ocean or how powerful a current could be.

      Also, one never knows how one will react when panic starts to set in, so it's best that everyone remind themselves each year how to avoid rip currents and how to get out of them if trapped. Most public beaches do have posters up but I don't think many people read them.

    • Stephanie Henkel profile imageAUTHOR

      Stephanie Henkel 

      10 years ago from USA

      Hi Peggy,

      Vacationers who are unfamiliar with the ocean swimming would be wise to learn about riptides and to teach their children about them. I am happy to see that many businesses and all of the beaches have riptide safety information posted around the Outer Banks and other beaches we have visited. Thanks for your comments and vote!

    • Peggy W profile image

      Peggy Woods 

      10 years ago from Houston, Texas

      Thanks for bringing attention to this important topic. Sadly several people have died in Galveston this year and it was blamed on riptides. If more people learn what to do if caught in one, more lives will be saved. Up and useful votes.

    • Stephanie Henkel profile imageAUTHOR

      Stephanie Henkel 

      10 years ago from USA

      Hi Simone, The power of the ocean is one of the things that makes it so fascinating and fun! I sure do have a lot of respect for it, though. Thanks for stopping by, Simone.

    • Simone Smith profile image

      Simone Haruko Smith 

      10 years ago from San Francisco

      Thanks for bringing up this issue- and sharing your experience! I've been stuck in riptides a bunch of times and the first couple, I remember feeling pretty panicked. The ocean is incredibly powerful, that's for sure!

      Thank goodness for swimming sideways, eh? I'm so glad your Husband was there to help you. Great Hub!

    • Stephanie Henkel profile imageAUTHOR

      Stephanie Henkel 

      10 years ago from USA

      Hi Kittythedreamer, We often see these posters at North Carolina beaches, too, and I'm sure that the information has saved many lives. Thank you for your vote and comment!

    • kittythedreamer profile image

      Kitty Fields 

      10 years ago from Summerland

      Great hub to put out during the summer, Stephanie! Very useful. At the beaches in Florida, we have signs all over showing how to escape the rip currents, as they are definitely a threat in Florida waters. Voted up and useful.

    • Stephanie Henkel profile imageAUTHOR

      Stephanie Henkel 

      10 years ago from USA

      Hi Denise, It was a frightening experience that taught me to be a lot more safety conscious. Before I experienced a rip current first hand, I really didn't believe in its power. Thanks for your comments. I did think that the video gave some useful information on identifying rip currents and escaping them.

    • Stephanie Henkel profile imageAUTHOR

      Stephanie Henkel 

      10 years ago from USA

      Deborah-Diane, We are also extremely watchful when taking the children to the beach. We want them to love the ocean as much as we do, and we try to teach them water safety at a young age. Thanks for your comment!

    • Denise Handlon profile image

      Denise Handlon 

      10 years ago from North Carolina

      How frightening, Stephanie, and a wonderful reminder for safety in the ocean. I'm so glad you were able to remain calm, but I can relate to that flash of 'is this the end' that you experienced. Good thinking on both of your parts!

      I like how you set the 'safety rules'. I also liked the diagram and video-nice touch. Rated useful and interesting.

    • Deborah-Diane profile image


      10 years ago from Orange County, California

      When we take our grandkids to the beach, this is one of our greatest fears. Thanks for your thoughtful information on these currents and under-tows.

    • Just Ask Susan profile image

      Susan Zutautas 

      10 years ago from Ontario, Canada

      The undertow actually dragged me under the water and then across the sandy bottom. I thought at the time I was going to drown. I still love the water and went right back in the next day.

    • Stephanie Henkel profile imageAUTHOR

      Stephanie Henkel 

      10 years ago from USA

      Hi Susan, The push and pull of the waves can be fun, but scary for kids when they lose their footing. I guess sand in bathing suits is one of the prices we pay for ocean swimming! I hope the experience didn't scare you away from the beaches. Thanks for your comments.

    • Just Ask Susan profile image

      Susan Zutautas 

      10 years ago from Ontario, Canada

      Excellent advise. I got caught in what I thought was an under current when I was young one time in the Atlantic and it dragged me under and all I remember now was when I came up to the surface I had a ton of sand in my bathing suit. It was pretty scary and something I will never forget.


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