Rip Currents: What You Need To Know

Rip Currents

Rip Currents: What You Need to Know

When sharks and shark attacks are in the news, ocean predators are what many beachgoers worry about. But there are far more common hazards at the beach: rip currents.

Rip currents are fast-moving channels of water that flow away from the shore, carrying sand, seaweed and sometimes swimmers with them. They have caused roughly 100 deaths in the Carolinas since 2000, including 5 in July 2013, according to Steve Pfaff of the National Weather Service in Wilmington.

“It’s scary,” he said. Pfaff and other experts on rip currents say those deaths are largely preventable. If beachgoers knew how to recognize and escape rip currents, fewer people would find themselves in danger.

The National Weather Service, U.S. Lifesaving Association and the National Oceanic and Atomospheric Administration have been teaming up to educate swimmers about rip currents with flyers, signs and online resources. Spencer Rogers with NC Sea Grant said, however, that one of the biggest challenges has been educating what he called the “bottomless pit” of visitors from out of state. He and Pfaff have worked to get rip current safety brochures in hotels and rental properties and even put up posters in movie theaters. 

“We can never do enough,” said Rogers. “But we’ll keep trying.”

The message of rip current safety is expanding. From beach signs to forecasts on the internet, information on rip currents can help North Carolina’s beachgoers enjoy the beautiful coasts more safely. The rest of this article will describe how rip currents form, how to recognize them, and what to do if caught in one.

What Comes in Must Go Out

Some people describe gravity as “what goes up must come down.” Similarly, waves on a beach follow a “what comes in must go out” rule.

Waves batter coastlines around the world, dumping extra water at the shore. As anyone who has been to the beach knows, that extra water recedes back out as new waves come in.

In most places under normal conditions, water can flow out as quickly as new waves bring it in. High winds, offshore storms and matches in wave patterns, however, bring water in more quickly than it can flow out, piling it up at the shore.

There are places, like gaps in a sandbar, where water can more easily escape, so when excess water piles up, more will escape through the easiest spots. When water starts flowing through quickly enough, it forms a rip current.

Any body of water with waves can form rip currents. That includes every ocean and sea on Earth and even some large lakes. They form on almost every coastline on Earth every day.

Staying Safe

The best way to keep safe from rip currents is to never swim alone. Rip currents can form without warning so having someone who can help is always a good idea. Knowing how to swim is also very important.

Whenever possible, swim on a beach with lifeguards. On top of having someone trained in water rescue, Pfaff says lifeguards can be a great resource for identifying rip currents and rip current risk. 

“[Lifeguards] might be able to show you a rip current or tell you what the risk will be like later in the day,” he said. “These guys and gals are pros.”

North Carolina, however, has many unguarded beaches so Pfaff recommends taking a look at the water before going in. Here are some tips that may help in identifying and avoiding a rip current:

  • Look at the waves. Waves breaking away from shore usually indicate a sandbar. Places where that pattern of breaking waves is different could mean a rip current.
  • Look for a channel of choppy water. Rip currents sometimes appear to be churning.
  • Look for areas where the water is a different color. Rip currents sometimes form a well-defined area of lighter or darker water.
  • Look for an area where foam, seaweed, sand or other objects are moving steadily away from shore. This would be a dead giveaway.

The US Lifesaving Association says beachgoers should avoid swimming if there is any question as to whether there is a rip current. “When in doubt, don’t go out.”

Escaping Rip Currents

Rip currents can occur anywhere and can be very difficult to see, but there are steps to escape rip currents or stay safe until help arrives.

  • Spencer Rogers from NC Sea Grant says, “The first is don’t panic.” Rip currents kill by tiring people out until they can’t swim anymore so keeping calm will help conserve energy. They DO NOT pull people under the water.
  • DO NOT try to swim against the current. A rip current can flow as quickly as 8 feet per second.  Olympians swimming as fast as they can swim roughly 1 foot per second. Swimming against the current just wastes energy.
  • Try to swim out of the current. Rip currents have definite boundaries on their sides. Turn until the beach is directly to your right or left, then swim forward out of the current. Once out, swim back to shore.
  • If unable to escape the current, tread water or float. Face the shore, wave your arms and call out for help.

Helping Others

Rip currents are just as dangerous to rescuers as they are to people initially trapped. In July 2013, a North Carolina judge drowned trying to rescue a woman in Sunset Beach.

Both Rogers and Pfaff say many times rip currents drown rescuers while the original people caught in the current survive. Rogers referred to rescuer drownings as a “critical issue.”

If there is a lifeguard on duty, always inform the lifeguard first. Eighty percent of ocean rescues occur because of rip currents according to the USLA, so lifeguards are trained to deal with rip currents. Also call 9-1-1 for assistance.

You can also try directing the person from shore. If you can see where the rip current ends, you can signal which way they should swim. Only go into the water as a last resort, and ALWAYS bring a flotation device. Lifeguards never go out without a flotation device. Surf boards, life jackets and boogie boards allow both you and the person trapped in the rip current to safely rest. They also give the trapped person something besides you to hold on to, as they may be panicked. 

For more information on rip currents and rip current safety or informational materials please click on the links below:

- Daniel Lane

Daniel Lane covers science, medicine and the environment as a reporter/writer. He is currently pursuing a master's degree in medical and science journalism at UNC - Chapel Hill.