How to Spot, Avoid and Escape Rip Tides in the Ocean

Kristen Strom | | SurfSurf

A riptide or rip current is a strong and narrow current of water that moves directly away from the shore, and it is the strongest near the surface of the water, which is why many surfers and swimmers should be aware of the possible dangers. Most swimmers and surfers caught in a riptide are not aware of what’s happening and try to swim directly against the current, towards the shore, exhausting themselves. They are the leading cause of rescues by lifeguards at the beach. The United States Lifesaving Association (USLA) estimates that over 100 people die each year due to rip currents in the US.

rip currents,
Credit: NOAA

While rip currents are dangerous to both surfers and swimmers, surfers have the advantage of their board to ride out the currents. Surfers also have the advantage because they like to stay where the waves break further out in the water than the typical swimmers.

What to watch out for:

  • With some experience, you can visually identify rip tides from the shore using a few characteristics. First, there may be a noticeable break in the pattern of the waves. For example, the riptide often has flat water, while it may be surrounded by breaking waves. The riptide can also sometimes make the water look foamy or change the color of the water completely.
  • If you’re caught in a riptide, you should either go with the flow and let it take you out until the current dissipates beyond the surf line then swim back to shore a different direction, or swim parallel to the shore, in either direction to get out of the current. Again, the most important thing is to try and not panic or wear yourself out fighting the current.
  • Contrary to popular belief, rip currents do not pull you under but can still panic people and cause them to act on their instincts. So whether you’re learning to surf or just swimming around, it’s good to know what to do if things take a turn for the worst.
  • Riptides occur more often during Low Tide.

Check out more information and forecasts for rip currents from the National Weather Service.

Arrows pointing out a riptide.

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