How to Escape a Riptide
Have you ever been swimming at the beach and got caught in a rip tide? If so, you'll know that it can be difficult to escape because these long, narrow channels of water can quickly sweep you out to sea. So, what do you do? Many people have found success by staying calm, avoiding swimming against the current, and swimming parallel to the shore. This post will tell you what you need to know to successfully escape a riptide if you get caught in one.
What Is a Rip Tide?
Rip tides aka “Rip currents” are water channels which flow away from the shore and out to sea. As waves splash into the shore, water stacks up and needs somewhere to go. Rather than 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:
Permanent Rip: Places where there’s a permanent obstacle like a reef, a rip may be ever present.
Fixed rip: Sometimes formed between sand bars, can stay in the same place for days, weeks, or even months.
Flash rip: A rip current can form suddenly and vanish just as fast due to decreasing water levels or increasing wave heights.
How to Identify a Rip Current
Although some rip currents are visibly obvious and easily discerned, they are usually not easily identifiable to the average beachgoer. Some of the clues to rip current identification include:
• A channel of churning, choppy water;
• A line of sea foam, seaweed, or debris moving steadily seaward;
• Different colored water beyond the surf zone; and
• A break in the incoming wave pattern as waves roll into shore.
None, one, or several of the above clues may be present to indicate the location of rip currents. General characteristics of a rip current are shown below:
If you find yourself stuck in a rip tide the best method to help you escape safely is by following these steps:
Exit shallow water if you feel a rip current. If you feel a strong pull in shallow water, get out. A rip current is difficult to fight once you are chest-deep. If the water is waist-deep or shallower, you can likely walk to shore (or sideways out of the current) if you keep your footing.
Remain calm. If you get caught in a rip current, don't panic: it takes a clear head to escape. Understand that a rip current does not drag you underwater, even if it feels that way when a wave hits you. Rip currents only pull you straight out to sea. Good swimmers are not in immediate danger of drowning unless they exhaust themselves by trying to fight the current.
Call for help if you are a poor swimmer. Rip currents are especially dangerous to people who cannot swim well. If you do not think you will be able to reach the shore, get the attention of a lifeguard or of other beachgoers by waving your arms and yelling for help.
Trying to rescue someone by swimming into a rip current is very dangerous. People on shore should throw you a floating object to hang onto instead.
Swim parallel to shore to escape the current. Most rip currents are less than 30 feet (9.1 m) wide, though they can reach 100–200 feet (30.5–61.0 m). Instead of trying to swim against the current — which is much stronger than you are — swim parallel to the shore to get out of its path. The rip current will carry you further away from shore as you swim, but don't panic. This is not a foolproof method, but it is a good option for a strong swimmer. If possible, look for these signs before choosing a direction:
- The longshore current, a normal current moving parallel to the beach, is often strong enough to push you back into the rip current if you try to swim against it. Check the direction of the longshore current in advance by asking the lifeguard or observing the angle of waves on the beach.
- Rip currents often form around jetties and other structures perpendicular to the beach. If you are near one of these structures, swim away from it.
- Swim in the direction of the nearest breaking waves. These mark the edge of the rip current.
Conserve energy when necessary. If you are not making any progress by swimming, or if you are getting tired, conserve your energy. Float on your back or tread water instead of fighting the current. Once you are past the breaking waves, the rip current will slow down and fan out into multiple branches, becoming much weaker. If you do not have the energy to make it back to shore, stay afloat and relax until you are ready to begin. Continue to signal for help if there are people present.
Swim diagonally toward the shore. Once you are out of the current, either because you have swum out the side or the current has carried you to its end, make your way back to shore. Swimming diagonally away from the rip current minimizes the chance that you will enter it again. You may be some distance from shore at this point, so stop and float periodically if you need to rest.