How to Identify - and Survive - Dangerous Rip Currents

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A rip current is a strong flow of water that is pushed back in to the water body by the force of the waves. What causes rip currents is not clear, but there are many theories that explain how it works. Some reasons that cause dangerous rip currents are:

  1. Depression on the shore- the surface may become eroded on a certain stretch of the shore, creating a wide and deep trench. When this happens, strong waves will start using that trench as an escape route. When the wave reaches the shore, the force of the wave is forced back in to the trench, causing the water to move fast back into the water body.
  2. Sometimes a wave or a series of waves break at the shore at different speeds. This means one wave is travelling at different speeds on different sections of the width of the wave, forcing some edges of the wave to break before others. This causes a spiraling effect, pushing the break water back in the path of the remaining oncoming wave. This then creates a trench, and the trench’s effect accelerates the dangerous rip current explained in point 1.

Due to the nature of how they are created, rip currents are not permanent and can change their location any time. This makes it difficult to judge where a rip current is and how long it will last, but there are ways we can detect a dangerous rip current before we enter the water. On popular beaches and shore the lifeguard service makes sure to check for them on regular basis. So there is no major risk on public beaches, though the risk is much higher on isolated shores.

Rip Current Warning Signs

We can identify a dangerous rip tide by observing the following when on a beach before jumping in to the water:

  • Murky or dirty water- Observe the water quality. If it is murky, identify the affected area and if it is murky in a particular section, avoid the affected area. Sometimes the whole body may be dirty, nevertheless follow all steps before entering the water.
  • Even wave break - The waves should break evenly before another follows. There should not be any gaps between waves that do not break. This could mean the wave is being forced back before it breaks.
  • Swirling water- Beware of swirling pools of water and avoid them at any cost. Besides sucking you under the water surface, they will also ensure that you’re dragged deep down in the water body.

These are all signs that can be observed to know if there is a dangerous rip current at a particular shore.

Swimming Out of a Dangerous Rip Current

Yes, you can swim out of a rip current.

If you are unfortunately caught in a rip tide you should be prepared to swim out it. It may be a rough ride for a while, but may mean life or death for you. Even strong swimmers have been known to drown in dangerous rip currents just because they were not informed how to swim in a rip tide.

Instead of fighting the current and swimming to the shore, you should actually turn and swim out towards the water body. This will let you move and while doing this swim towards the edges of the current if visible. This works because the further you go from the shore, the weaker the current will flow. This will let you come out of the vicious circle within the dangerous rip current. Then you can swim back to shore in calmer waters beyond it boundaries.

So the next time you go down to the beach, do spend a few moments to observe potential risks that could be lurking in the water before you jump in. Many accidents that happen on shores or beaches of water bodies can be avoided if we are a little cautious before we indulge in an activity. Over excitement mostly causes accidents since we don’t think clearly and just act on impulse… and regret our decisions later.


Image from National Weather Forecast Office, VA

Rip Current Safety information from National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Govt of USA.