Rip currents have gotten a lot of press lately. Every summer local and national news stations invariably run a short piece on the dangers of rip currents. This is great, as public awareness is the first step to decreasing drowning accidents. Unfortunately, most media pieces on rip currents don’t tell the whole story. Here are five things you might not know about rip currents that could save your life.
They don’t pull you underwater.
There is no such thing as an undertow. Nothing is going to pull you underwater (except a maelstrom or very large surf). Rip currents occur when water from incoming swell energy returns to the ocean. As such, rip currents do not pull under, but rather flow outward like a river.
They don’t always go straight out to sea.
Now we know that rip currents go out, not under, but it is important to understand that they do not always go straight out. Water follows the path of least resistance. A rip current may flow straight out, it may curve, it may zig-zag, it may flow at an angle, or it may flow parallel to shore and then curve sharply outward. Because rip currents don’t always flow away from shore, many victims do not realize they are in a rip until it is too late.
You shouldn’t always swim parallel to shore.
Conventional wisdom dictates that you should swim parallel to shore when you are in a rip. That’s great if the rip is moving straight out to sea, but if the rip is diagonal, longshore, or zig-zagging you will tire yourself out by swimming parallel to shore. As a rule, you should always swim perpendicular to the flow of the rip, towards shore, with the wind.
You shouldn’t always wait for the rip to end.
Some people suggest waiting for the rip to stop flowing before figuring out how to reach the shore. That’s fine if you are in a small rip, but some rips flow 300 yards out to sea. The best way to escape a rip is by acting quickly and rationally. Once you feel the pull, figure out which direction you are going and then follow the guidelines in step three. Waiting until the rip ends may leave you very far from shore.
You don’t have to be an expert swimmer to save a life.
You just need to be smart and informed. If you notice someone in a rip, first signal for help. Lifeguards and surfers will be able to respond effectively. If you are on land, call 9–11. If you have available flotation (rafts, body boards, surfboards) approach the victim and lend the flotation. If you do not have flotation, but have available assistance, a human chain can help pull victims to the safety of the sandbar. Just remember, never panic and never ever approach a victim without flotation. A potential rescuer should never become a victim.