Avoiding and Escaping Rip Currents

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At the beach at Cape Canaveral, nineteen-year-old Josh Scurlock looks out at the water.  The larger than normal waves look rough but not too rough so he and a friend go out in them to play.  A strong swimmer – Josh loves the ocean and his new Florida home just five blocks from the beach. It’s Saturday and the sun is out and there is no school and nothing at all is wrong in the world.

Josh Scurlock

Joshua Scurlock in 2003

Having recently moved to Florida from Indiana, he doesn’t notice – or even know how to notice – the rip current that will sweep him out to sea and away from his friend.  Once caught in its pull, his instincts are to head back in.  The land is where safe is and something is pulling him away from it so he fights. Swimming as hard as he can for as long as he can – with his friend on the beach now yelling for help – Josh Scurlock tires and drowns. And though a heroic surfer eventually makes it to him and brings him to shore – he cannot be revived.  Josh never sees twenty.

The U.S. Lifesaving Association says a story like that will happen over a hundred times this year on U.S. beaches.  My hope – and of that Josh’s mother, Dawn – is that they will be wrong.  By knowing what to look for, where to swim, and how to escape one should you get caught in a rip current, your summer will be a safer one.

Rip Current in MontereyWhat is a rip current? Pictured to the left is a classic example: able to develop anywhere there are breaking waves, these swaths of current produced by water draining from the beach and back out to sea happen all the the time to lesser degrees without posing appreciable risk.

Often they move slow enough to barely be detected.  But given the right circumstances of waves and beach profile, they can develop into currents moving at speeds of up to 8 feet per second – faster than any of us can possibly swim. Ranging in size from just a few feet to hundreds of yards, their pull can be to just outside the breaking waves to over a hundred yards from shore.

How to spot a rip current: As with all risks, avoiding it altogether is safest.  Though not always visually detectable – stronger rip currents can give off some telltale signs.

  • An area of water through a surf zone that is a different color than the surrounding water
  • A break in the incoming pattern of waves
  • seaweed or debris moving out through the surf zone
  • Isolated turbulent and choppy water in the surf zone

Often, the best resource to help you avoid rip currents – not surprisingly – are the lifeguards.

Eight out of ten people rescued by beach lifeguards in the U.S. are rescued from rip currents.  Guards hate rips and know how to spot them.  Before going in, ask the nearest guard specifically about rip currents in the area and what the threat level is for rip currents. Also, please check the NOAA for Rip Current Threat advisories by clicking here.

If avoidance fails: If you are caught in a rip current the primary thing to so is to stay calm and relax.  You are not going to win a fight with the ocean.  Swim slowly and conservatively parallel to the shoreline or relax and let it carry you out past the breakers until it slacks.

Contrary to myth – rip currents are not “undertow,” a misleading term.  They will not pull you under the water.  So long as you can tread water or float you will be safe until you can escape the flow and head back.  When you head back in, do so at an angle to the shoreline.  Again, maintain a slow and relaxed pace until you reach the shore or assistance arrived.  If swimming at a guarded beach ─ and you should be ─ they will most likely have seen you and will be on their way out (or watching carefully).

Other tips:

  • Swim only on guarded beaches.  The USLA estimates the chance of drowning on a guarded beach is 1 in 18,000,000.
  • Talk to the guards about local hazards before getting in the water.
[Experienced] surfers go out when it’s rough because it’s fun and they are tethered to huge boards that float.* (See note)  If you’re not VERY comfortable in rough water over your head – stay out of rough water totally.  You’re not ready.
  • NEVER swim alone.
  • There is nothing wrong with making your young children wear USCG approved life jackets to play in the surf. That doesn’t mean you can leave them alone – but it will make them safer.
  • Discuss rip currents and how to deal with them with your children. In fact, make them read every page of http://www.ripcurrents.noaa.gov/ and write you a report.
  • Swim only on guarded beaches.  I said that twice for a reason.
  • I’d like to personally thank Dawn Armstrong for giving me permission to use the story of her son, Josh, to get your attention. Dawn is working hard to educate the public in her area of the country about the dangers of rip currents so that no one else will have a story like hers to tell.

    * (Note:  Reader Nate L., an avid surfer, correctly schooled me up and pointed out that too many beginning surfers depend on their boards for floatation.  That’s a huge mistake.  Leashes break, surfer’s lose their boards, and then the weak swimmers among them are in just as much danger as anyone else.  Nate’s advice for surfers is “…if you can’t swim out and back from the break without a board, it’s too big for you to go out.”

    Thanks Nate – that is a  VERY good point.

    disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed by the author are not necessarily those of the Department of Homeland Security or the U.S. Coast Guard.

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    By | 2017-05-18T15:30:02+00:00 July 11th, 2010|Survival, Water Safety|16 Comments

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    • This is a great post Mario! Last year on our family vacation down on the Outer Banks as we were wading in the surf with out daughters near a pair of teenage girls and their adult uncle who were working there way out into the surf. One second they were standing on a sandbar about 50 feet our from the beach and the next they were being swept out.

      Luckily my father-in-law had his phone- we called the D5 Command Center and the rescue, with locals and Coast Guard, took place. All three were REALLY shaken up but lived. The local stated they ended up walking, literally, into a rip current. It looked bad from shore I can only imagine how it felt being in the water.

      Thanks again Mario and keep up the great writing!

    • rungrrl

      Thank you for this post. Rip currents are apparently worse than usual in Maine right now: “Over Fourth of July weekend alone, lifeguards rescued about 50 people who were caught in the currents…”


    • Good lifeguards don't get paid enough, do they?

    • Itsmebiron

      isnt that the main reason behind drowning anyway? people not staying calm? i always had the impression that most of the cases happen because people dont just trust the water. i mean, wouldnt it be smart to introduce kids to swimming by first showing them how to float, to see that, with barely any effort involved, you can just lie there. i have to add, i had my deal of rip tide action before, and, as a matter of fact, i panicked. barely made it back to the beach. even though i trust the water, i was just too panicked to think. but i figure that if you just float often enough, it should kind of come instinctively like a reflex and become some kind of base mindset, which doesnt even require thinking shouldnt it?

    • My brother, his wife, and my adult niece all nearly drowned in a rip current in Cancun a couple of months ago. None were familiar with the ocean or knew to swim parallel. Life guards went out with a cable and rescued them with help from those on shore pulling them in. My brother was the last to be pulled inand he was purple and breathing water. The ambulance attendants put him on his back. Only the fact that there was a doctor vacationing on the beach saved him. The ambulance attendants didn't know what to do. The doctor went to the hospital with him. The hospital care was excellent though.

    • Liz

      I put USCG-approved life jackets on my 2 small children when we were at Laguna Beach in California, thinking it would make them safer. They were too scared to go into the water anyway, but I thought they would be better off with them on in case they accidentally ended up in the water. Immediately after they had their life jackets on, one of the life guards came over and told me they were not allowed to wear them. He explained that because the waves there were so big and strong, they needed to stay low, underneath the waves. The life jackets would make them float on the water, which would carry them out to sea, making a rescue much harder. So while life jackets are great to use in standing water, such as a pool or lake, they are not always safer to use in the ocean. And remember, children in the water need to be watched constantly, even if they are wearing life jackets. The life jackets make rescuing them easier if they get into trouble, but are not a substitute for constant supervision.

    • Anonymous

      Good post. We had some strong rips this year on some MV beaches. The most important thing here is to be educated and educate your kids. I try and teach them to swim well but most of all to be relaxed and know how to tread water and float. As long as you stay calm and go slow you can go with the flow of the current and then swim back or stay afloat until help arrives. Panic is really your #1 enemy in most of these situations.

    • Cms Dahl

      Last week I helped rescue two boys,11 and 6, who had been caught in a wave while wading near shore in the North Sea. The current ripped them hundreds of meters offshore before their parents could even react. Their father found me body-surfing and asked for help. We swam out, and found one. I kept swimming and found the other. I was surprised how quickly the current had separated the two boys after they were forced to let go of each other as they started to drown. Thankfully, I was able to reach the older boy before he succumbed.

      It is not enough to rely on lifeguards, or to watch your children from a distance. The conditions were deceptive – the smooth surface concealed strong undercurrents on what looked like a perfect day for swimming. Arm’s-length supervision is safer for children.

    • Step4_luvs_orange

      I live in New Zealand and rips are as bad here as any part of the world. I grew up on the coast so have learnt about rips and water safty from a young age. However when I was 13 I took my younger cousin of 10 out swimming and she got caught in a rip. My mother was watching from shore and saw me save my cousin from being swept out by explaining to her what to do, and not letting her go.
      Just goes to show that even if you live inland knowing about water safty is important, and if my cousin had known this she might not have needed my help.

    • Julie

      Why do so many beaches not allow USCG approved life jackets? I find it frustrating. I live in Chicago and love to take my children to the beach. I am an avid and experienced swimmer, having swam competitively for much of my youth. I wanted my children in life jackets while playing as an extra precaution, and I was told they are dangerous on the beach.

    • Kate

      i can’t float!!!!
      some people just sink, and i’m one of them!!!

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    • Bob

      How can this possibly be true?