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Rip Tides - A Hazard To Swimmers

Updated on March 6, 2013

What is a rip tide?

Rip tide is actually the incorrect term, as is tidal rip. A rip has, in fact, nothing to do with tides, although the mistake is reasonable as rips occur along the shore.

The correct, accurate term is a rip current. A rip current occurs when a deep, swift flowing ocean current comes extremely close to, or even in contact with, the shore. These currents can move at more than five miles per hour and run either along the shore or out from it.

In the United States, about 150 people are killed a year by rip currents. Rip currents are caused by a number of things, including underwater sand bars, the geography of the coast itself and strong storms such as hurricanes.

Spotting a rip tide

Permanent rip tides or rip currents generally run along the shore rather than directly out. They can easily be detected by their effect on the beach.

On a normal beach, any ridges or ripples in the sand or stones run along the shoreline. On a rip-affected beach, ridges may be anything up to a ninety degree angle to the shoreline. Never swim off a beach that has ridges at a steep angle to the actual line of the water. Cornwall is particularly notorious for these permanent rip currents and people get killed there every year.

Select beaches to swim off that are in deep coves. Unless you are a strong swimmer, try and find a lifeguard protected beach. Do not allow children to swim unless there is a lifeguard present or you are a very strong swimmer and have had basic lifeguard training yourself.

Outward rip currents are often detected as a channel of choppy water or a line of debris moving seaward. Avoid swimming close to groins, jetties or piers as they can create small, local rip currents. Avoid areas where the water looks a different color outside the surf zone.

If in doubt and there is a lifeguard present, talk to him. If there is no lifeguard present and you still have doubts - find another beach. It's not worth risking your life.

What to do if you get caught

If you are caught in a rip tide, it can be very frightening.

No matter what, try not to panic and do not swim against the current. These currents are too strong to fight against. Tread water and let the current carry you until it slows.

If it is an outward current, swim along the beach until it lets up and then in, or swim in at an angle. If caught in a parallel or 'feeder' current then again, you need to swim at an angle to the current. Sometimes the feeder current may make it all but impossible to get back to land as the only escape is to swim outwards.

In this case, you need to get out of the current, tread water and call for rescue. Again, do not swim off of beaches that have ridges or ripples perpendicular to the shore. This indicates a very strong current along the beach line which is very dangerous.

Never swim alone.

Rip tide myths

First of all, rip tides do not pull people under the water. They are not the same thing as an undertow. An undertow is the water going back out to sea before the wave breaks. It will not pull you down to the bottom, but may cause waders to lose their footing and then be drenched by the wave. If somebody goes under as a result of a rip tide it is usually because they were trying to swim against it and exhausted themselves.

Rip tides do not create whirlpools that will pull the swimmer and any rescuers under. If you see somebody in a rip tide it is safe to go after them, as long as you can stay out of the tide yourself. Don't waste time going for a rope, but don't attempt a rescue unless you know what you are doing.


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    • jenniferrpovey profile image

      jenniferrpovey 6 years ago

      I always say that unless you are a very good swimmer, stick to beaches with lifeguards on duty.

      Also obey swimming flags. Trust me, resorts often mean them. I'm a pretty strong swimmer, and if there's a red flag up, I ain't setting a toe in the water. I WILL swim under a yellow flag but would suggest that inexperienced swimmers and children do not try that. I once went into the water in Cancun under a yellow flag, came right out again and went and got a body board...because swimming in that wasn't going to be any fun at all ;). (And boy did I kill my core as I hadn't body surfed since I was about 10, but that's another matter).

    • chasmac profile image

      chasmac 6 years ago from UK

      Voted interesting and useful- Too bad there's no 'scary' button or I'd have clicked that too. Great hub.

    • ladeda profile image

      ladeda 6 years ago

      Great advice, especially for those of us who didn't grow up near the ocean and may be unaware of the danger of rip currents.