How to avoid and survive rip currents

Rip Currents: fast, unpredictable and deadly

Rip currents are responsible for hundreds of drownings and more than 100,000 lifeguard rescues on world beaches every year. Learn how to avoid and survive these mysterious ocean rips.

Water moves all over the place, so rips are strong currents, just like river currents.

All beaches have their own particular currents. They're dangerous and deadly to swimmers but also to all wave riders.

On unpatrolled beaches, surfers tend to rely on their personal knowledge and their floatation crafts, i.e., their surfboards. However, rip currents will move anything and anyone.

If maritime conditions suddenly change, new channels of water will flow, pushing you to new areas. If you're tired after two hours of waves, a rip will certainly defeat you for good.

"The rip will not pull you under the water, and your body has a natural ability to float," writes Rob Brander in his book "Dr Rip's Essential Beach Book."

Being in a rip usually doesn't feel like anything because you are just going with the flow."

Rip currents: don't fight the current - float or tread water | Photo: Creative Commons

Memorize the Rules

One of the most important rules is never to swim against the rip. Small rips will flow faster than the average person can swim. You'll get tired and start panicking.

If you get caught in a rip current, you've got four rational alternatives.

First, stay afloat and signal for help. Then, if possible, swim towards the side of the rip, keeping in mind that rips are quite narrow.

If you still can't get out of the rip, look for whitewater and breaking waves.

"Whitewater is good because it means the water is shallower, and you may be able to stand up. Whitewater will also bring you back to shore. When it comes to most rips, 'white is nice, green is mean,'" adds Brander.

Finally, if you just can't get out, let the rip take you out the back until it stops. Then you'll be able to swim back to the beach an alternative way.

Types of Rips

There are fixed rips, flash rips, permanent rips, mega rips, and swash rips.

Fixed rips are the most common ocean rips. It sits in deep channels snuggled between shallow sand bars.

These currents can stay in the same place for days, weeks, and even months. Fixed rips appear as dark gaps of calmer water between breaking waves and whitewater.

Flash rips move around all over the place, popping up and disappearing, and usually last for a few minutes.

They are dangerous and form in larger surf. Flash rips flow quickly and are impossible to predict.

Permanent rips are influenced by topography, so they sit and reappear in the same spot all the time. They tend to flow further offshore than fixed rips. Look for dark channeling gaps.

Megarips are big, fast, and rare. They only appear with storms and large swell.

Swash rips combine the uprush of water from a broken wave up the beach and its subsequent backwash down the beach.

They may carry people into deep water beyond the shore break.

Find out what it means to be caught by a rip current.