Safe Swimming Tips: Rip Currnets

Safe Swimming Tips: Rip Currnets

What are Rip Currents?

Rip currents are channels of water that flow perpendicularly away from the shore. Forming in locations with an uneven topography of the seabed, the water that is pushed up the beach by a wave returns back to sea via the deepest dip in the seabed. For example, a break in a sandbar would provide the water with the easiest possible route to return to the sea, creating a rip current. 

As rip currents are formed by the wind and waves instead of the tide, they can occur along the shore of any body of water with waves. For example, beaches, at the mouth of estuaries, at headlands and in lakes. Rip currents may be fixed in certain locations. However, flash rip currents can also unpredictably pop up and last for a couple of minutes before dying down again. Flash rip currents (as well as fixed rip currents) have varying speeds which can unpredictably change very quickly with no warning.

How to Identify a Rip Current

It’s important to check the water to identify any rip currents before you get in for your open water swim (as well as staying vigilant during your swim for any flash rip currents). But how do you identify a rip current?

Signs of a rip current:

  • Look for a darker area of water that has waves at either side but not in that channel.
  • Notice any streaks of seaweed or foam that are moving out to sea and are perpendicular to the shore rather than parallel.
  • A channel of water that appears to be moving straight out to sea.

What are the Dangers of Rip Currents?

Rip currents are made up of water moving laterally rather than vertically. Therefore, they pull you out to sea but don’t pull you under the water. Each rip current will vary in the distance it goes out to sea from just past the surrounding breaking waves to hundreds of metres out.

A lot of the time rip currents move at reasonably slow speeds. Getting caught in a slow rip current is easy to swim out of. The issue arises when the waves increase in size meaning more water is moving through the rip current, increasing its speed. These speed changes are unpredictable and can happen very quickly, picking up speeds faster than the fastest Olympic swimmer. Being an experienced or fast swimmer in a fast rip current won’t help you, instead you need to have the knowledge of how to escape a rip current.

Without the knowledge of how to escape a rip current, many swimmers panic and try to swim against the current. The main danger of this is that the panic and the fatigue from swimming against the current without any success can cause the swimmer to drown in the rip current.

What is the Difference Between a Rip Current and a Riptide?

Riptides are formed by the tides of the ocean instead of the wind, waves and topography of the seabed. This makes them predictable rather than unpredictable. Riptides also don’t occur on the shoreline of beaches (like rip currents). Instead they form where the water speeds up to get a larger amount of water through a smaller inlet like the opening of a harbour, port or lagoon.

Riptides affect both swimmers and boats that find themselves accidentally caught in the tide. However, if riptides are planned for, they can easily be used to the sailors' benefit and avoided by swimmers. If you do accidentally get caught in a riptide on your open water swim, unless you can see a safe place out of the tide to swim to, just focus on floating and calling for help. This is because riptides can go on for miles, making swimming out of a riptide a very difficult and tiring task.

Rip Current


Formed by the waves, wind and seabed topography.

Formed by the ocean tides.



Can be found on the shore at beaches, the mouth of estuaries and lakes.

Can be found at inlets, opening to harbours, ports and lagoons.

Can extend up to 200 feet.

Can extend for miles.

How to Escape a Rip Current

If you find yourself in a rip current, the first thing you need to do is stay calm. It’s natural to panic in these situations but panicking will just make the situation more dangerous. It’s okay to take a minute to calm down by rolling over to float on your back and focusing on your breathing.

Once you’re calm and ready to start swimming out of the current, you need to swim parallel to the shore. If you’re unsure where to swim, swim towards the edge of the rip current channel towards the breaking waves. Once you’ve escaped the current, swim at an angle towards shore away from the current (to avoid being pulled back in).

Rip currents aren’t usually wider than 50 feet, so escaping by swimming parallel to the shore shouldn’t be too difficult for a competent swimmer (if you’re not a competent swimmer, we don’t recommend you go open water swimming). If you feel too tired or panicked to swim out of the current, focus on floating and try to attract the attention of anyone on shore who could get help for you.

One thing to remember is never to swim directly towards shore when you’re in the current. You will not be able to swim faster than the current is pulling you out to sea. All this will do is tire you out and make it more difficult for you to escape the current.

How to Swim Safely in Water with Currents

Open water swimming safety equipment exists because it can save your life. Equipment like tow floats can give you some extra support to help you float and can be used to attract attention to yourself in an emergency. Equipment like whistles and lights, which can be attached to a tow float, can also be used to help you attract help.

You could bring your phone with you on your swim in a waterproof phone case. This means that if you get into difficulty in a rip current and you’re not able to swim out of it, you can call for help. You’ll also be able to provide rescue teams with your gps, making it easier and quicker for them to find you.

Even with these safety items, checking the water before you get in for your swim can avoid you getting caught in a rip current in the first place (although flash rip currents could always form). Avoiding rip currents when getting in the water and avoiding swimming towards areas without waves when you're in the water will help to make your swim rip-current-free.

When open water swimming off a beach, we recommend using lifeguarded beaches. Not only does this ensure that help is more easily accessible should you get into difficulty, but it also means that there are signs and flags to indicate where it is safe to swim. On these beaches it’s important that you always swim between the red and yellow flags as these are the designated safe areas for swimming.

We also recommend bringing someone with you when you go swimming to spot you from shore (even on lifeguarded beaches). This is because this person will be keeping a closer watch over you and will notice quicker if you get into trouble. This means they’d be able to get you help quicker. If you do get into trouble, they may be tempted to get into the water to save you. However, this would just cause them to get into trouble in the rip current too. Instead they should stay on land, contact help and shout instructions on how to stay calm and escape the current.

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