How to Escape a Riptide

by Brett & Kate McKay on August 19, 2010 · 22 comments

in Manly Skills, Outdoors, Survival

Summer is drawing to a close. If you made it to the beach this year, you managed to get your tan on and survive a shark attack. Congratulations! But there is another swimming danger that you should be aware of and that is moving into its most dangerous season: the riptide.

Riptides (properly called rip currents as they’re not actually a tide), are long, narrow channels of water which move from shore to sea and can take you with them as they go. They’re much more common during hurricane season, especially the peak of hurricane season which is August until October.

80% of all open water rescue attempts are due to riptides, and they claim over 100 victims a year. So here’s a primer on what a rip current is, how to spot one, and how to survive if you get picked up and taken for a ride.

What Is a Rip Current?

Rip currents are channels of water which flow away from the shore and out to sea. As waves come into the shore, water piles up and needs somewhere to go. Instead of returning over the reef or sandbar from which it came, the current may take the path of least resistance and be funneled into a channel between two obstacles. Here’s a handy diagram and a more technical explanation from the NOAA:

  • Waves break on the sand bars before they break in the channel area.
  • Wave breaking causes an increase in water level over the bars relative to the channel level.
  • A pressure gradient is created due to the higher water level over the bars.
  • This pressure gradient drives a current alongshore (the feeder current).
  • The longshore currents converge and turn seaward, flowing through the low area or channel between the sand bars.

There are three kinds of rips:

Flash rip: A rip current can form suddenly and vanish just as fast due to decreasing water levels or increasing wave heights.

Fixed rip: A fixed rip, sometimes formed between sand bars, can stay in the same place for days, weeks, or even months.

Permanent Rip: In a place with a permanent obstacle like a reef, a rip may be ever present.

How to Spot a Rip Current

Riptides can occur anywhere there are breaking waves, including large lakes. Spotting a rip current is not always easy, especially to the untrained eye. So be sure to heed warnings that are posted and issued by lifeguards and the like.

Here are some things to look for along with pictures from the University of Delaware:

A channel of churning, foaming, or choppy water

A rip current will pick up things like seaweed, forming a debris conga line which moves steadily seaward

In addition to debris, the rip current picks and stirs up sand, so look for areas of the water that are a different color than the surrounding water

A break in the incoming wave pattern

How to Escape a Rip Current

As mentioned, a rip current can suddenly appear. They can also rapidly ramp up in velocity. A rip current moving at 1-2 feet per second is no cause for alarm. But it can quickly start to move at a more dangerous 3 feet per second and have even been clocked trucking along at 8 feet per second.

If you get caught in a riptide, here’s what to do:

Don’t panic. Feeling like you’re getting swept out to sea can be terrifying. But try to keep calm. Rip currents won’t pull you under-they’re just channels of moving water. And while they can extend a ways out, they do eventually dissipate, most within 50-100 feet of the shoreline. So you’re not going to wash up on the shores of a deserted island with only a volleyball for a friend.

Don’t try to swim against the rip. Deaths that result from riptides aren’t caused by the current pulling someone under; instead, the person typically panics, starts trying to swim against the rip to get back to shore, becomes exhausted, and drowns. An 8 feet per second riptide is so strong that not even Michael Phelps, even when he had that amazing mustache, could swim against it. Don’t kick against the pricks.

Swim parallel to the shore. Instead of swimming against the rip current, you want to swim perpendicular to it, in either direction. Rip currents are typically only 20-100 feet wide. Once you leave the rip, swim at an angle away from it towards the shore.

Go with the flow. If you don’t have the swimming skills or energy to swim out of the rip, float on your back and go with the current. Just imagine you’re taking a spin on the Lazy River at the water park you went to as a kid. Once the rip current dissipates, you can do the parallel swim thing or try to signal to the lifeguard or someone else that you’re in need of help.

{ 22 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Mr. Ed August 19, 2010 at 2:51 am

Yep. Good article, great photos and animation.
What to do when you get in a riptide….It’s something we were taught when we grew up here near San Luis Obispo, CA (north of Santa Barbara). They’re pretty common along Central Coast of Calif.

2 Kyle August 19, 2010 at 7:44 am

I did not know this. Thanks for the protip! :D

3 Matt August 19, 2010 at 7:55 am

These things are no fun.
I almost drowned in one of these 5 years ago at the Outer Banks in September. When you panic in water your legs can stop working and become lead weights (mine did). And if it’s a particularly rough day it makes it really difficult to keep your head above water. When this happened to me I became totally disoriented and could no longer find the surface. Thankfully I washed ashore after literally giving up and blacking out. Probably seeing this diagram the day before and swimming maybe 3 strokes to the side before going under saved my life.

4 Dan August 19, 2010 at 8:18 am

The same techniques are also used to escape from hydraulics in whitewater. Good article

5 Tim Chilcote August 19, 2010 at 8:28 am

Here’s a few additional tips for dealing with rip tides in Lake Michigan:

6 mens designer t-shirts August 19, 2010 at 8:35 am

Never actually knew what a ‘riptide’ was. Fascinating piece guys.

7 CJ Mael August 19, 2010 at 10:46 am

Incredible article. At 56 I don’t plan of getting out surfing anymore in anything but very safe conditions and also where others are surfing. We took a trip to Hawaii a couple years ago and I hardly got in the water. I just don’t have that kind of balls anymore and I admit it. I still have some, but I respect my limitations…especially with the ocean. I have been scared by the ocean one too many times and I think I am now much less brave than I used to be. I am lucky to still be here. I would not trade my memories of things I have done for anything. I have more than my share of fun. Having had 2 shark encounters and 3 near drownings in my lifetime, I take it more easy now. I especially almost became a victime of a rip about 35 years ago. I still remember it like ti was yesterday. It almost finished me off. I literally crawled up on the shore and laid down from exhoustion for a while before I got up and resumed having fun…but it scared the crap out of me. The pictures in this article with the rest of the visual aids are by far the best learnning tools I have ever seen in regards to rips. I read articles about these all the time becasue of my experience with them…and this article is good…very good. It truly helps to explain these things and what to look for. I will show this to my sons and save the link to show others. I have rearely been as impressed with an article as I was with this one. Good job!

8 Perry August 19, 2010 at 11:05 am

To Designer Tshirts: The article is worth-while, without doubt, but it is, I believe, questionably mis-titled. “Rip Tide,” I suggest, should have been replaced by “Rip Current” in the headline. Why prolong the misinformation that the concept of “Rip Tides” even exists? They are rip currents. I live along the coast of North Carolina where nearly every year more than one person drowns needlessly in rip currents. It is a local irritant to hear someone say “rip current”; it gives us the chance to say to the speaker, “Yore not frum heer, ar’-ya?” Then wee look at another local and smile. Let me hasten to add that there is no way an editor in the interior of the country would have any way of knowing that, unless he’d spent time at a beach. It’s a big ass ocean.

9 Dan August 19, 2010 at 11:09 am

An excellent article. There are lots of people whose swimming skills are not really extraordinary, and the advice to stay calm is key.

I have one minor complaint: you confused Michael Phelps with Mark Spitz. It was Spitz that sported that excellent ‘stache, and refused to shave it off no matter how much people told him he would be faster without it.

10 Perry August 19, 2010 at 11:10 am

Correction of last Perry post: The first word in the sixth line should be “tide” rather than “current.” The “wee” at the end of that line is a the result of a slow ring finger and sloppy editing. Regrets.

11 Dan August 19, 2010 at 11:10 am

I stand corrected, I forgot Phelps also had a power-stache.

However, I still hold that Spitz’s was much more manly.

12 Dub August 19, 2010 at 11:21 am

You forgot the “Norris Rip” – the fastest moving of all, clocked at over 28ft per second. Which occurs when Chuck Norris is walking along the beach and the water flees in terror.

13 J.C. August 19, 2010 at 6:01 pm

A good article, and important for people who live by/visit the ocean. We’ve had two deaths from rip currents on the Outer Banks this month.

14 Jeff August 21, 2010 at 12:07 am

Perry, colloquial language is here to stay, and it’s not really concerned with accuracy as much as it is poetics. The educated/professionals will dutifully continue to point out that the colloquial term isn’t accurate, and tell us why, but it’s difficult to change a catchy phrase until it wears itself out. Those things follow socio-linguistic forces, not academic ones. Brett does the correct thing by bowing to the correct term, then returning to the colloquial use, because he is writing to a general audience.

Most people don’t know the difference between currents and tides anyway, and the distinction is of little concern to them; neither is it the writer’s point.

Next someone will be telling me I should abandon the highly-romantic and evocative “starfish” for the pitiful and committee-generated “sea star,” because “they aren’t really fish, you know.” Yeah, I know. They aren’t really stars, either.

Cheers, All

15 Brad August 22, 2010 at 4:10 am

Here in Australia we have always merely called them rips. I was taught at a young age what to look out for and have passed that onto my daughter.All very good advice in this article, though I would add that some of the most dangerous rips form where there are deep gutters close to the shoreline, between a sandbank & the shore, as there is a lot more water there waiting to head back out to sea.

16 thehuhman August 23, 2010 at 1:31 pm

Good article! I live near the coast of North Carolina, and we have some of the most beautiful beaches in the world. But, as with any coast there are hazards. Many of our beaches have become notorious for their deadly riptides. They are so common along the “Crystal Coast” that the riptide risk has become part of our daily local weather forecasts! Our lifeguards use a flag warning system, and it is a good idea to know how to read them (and to obey the lifeguards!)

17 Days and Adventures August 24, 2010 at 1:39 am

Nice advice. You may have just saved some lives!


18 Shane August 27, 2010 at 2:41 am

Great article. I hope that someone read this and learned from it. Take it from someone who has been in this situation, it is horrific!

19 Bill September 3, 2010 at 8:50 pm

As counter-intuitive as it sounds, why the big hurry to get back to shore? It’s salt water. I’m relatively muscular and lean and I can float in salt water with very little effort. Once you’re out past the wave breaks (which you will be if the rip current pulls you out there), you’re not going anywhere in a hurry, so just relax and start swimming at an angle back to shore. There’s a stroke my Dad taught me where you’re on your back and frog kick. As your legs come together, your hands come from over your head and as your legs are thrusting your hands are pulling. As you rebend your legs, keeping your arms and hands in close (less drag) move your hands back over your head. If you do this in a lazy manner it’s essentially the same level of effort as walking. It’s not as fast as a freestyle, but you can swim with this stroke for hours. Take your time and you’ll eventually end up back on shore. When you get close to shore, try to stay on top. Even as the water underneath is going out, the water on top is coming in.

20 Brian September 7, 2010 at 2:22 pm

My son and I got caught in a rip while vacationing in Puerto Rico this past January. I am still upset at myself for not catching the signs earlier but thankful I was out swimming with my teenager because he didn’t know what to do (or not do) and may very well have drowned.

We had been swimming in that area before but it was more calm. Once the waves picked up, it created a flash rip and it was so strong from there being a deep drop off or gutter like Brad above mentioned. We tried to swim out of it at first but it was too strong and that is a shitty feeling my friends…

Luckily we are strong swimmers and were able to stay afloat (back floating to save strength) until I could holler at a surfer nearby and we hitched a ride to shore. I won’t go out in the ocean and try body surfing again. Much rather work on my surfing skills and although I suck, at least it’s a floatation device.

Great article and the pics are very helpful. Thank you.

21 Carlos November 2, 2012 at 12:10 pm

Keep an eye on your children. I was a lifeguard, in S. California for several years. Kids love to throw objects, like those new flip-flops, into the surf and watch them wash back to shore. Trouble is, the toys tend to wash laterally with the side current, towards the rip. Kids follow them. Next thing you know, the toy doesn’t wash back and the child is drawn out to retrieve it. Presto! Kid in the rip. The current in water rip channel tears up the sand bottom, making foot traction difficult. Happens all the time. Rips on sandy beaches move around with the tide, wind and swell direction, too.

22 ProSimsor April 17, 2013 at 5:42 am

Swimmers should be aware rips flow in a circular motion meaning that it’s possible to swim against a rip whilst swimming parralel to the shore. So the most important thing to remember is, don’t swim against the rip.

Even if the rip pulls you away from the shore, it should also push you back to the shore once you complete the circle.

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