Dangers & Annoyances

What to Do If You’re Caught in a Riptide

Riptides account for the majority of ocean drownings, though a simple understanding of how these currents behave can save your life. Rip currents are composed of three parts: the feeder current, the neck and the head. The feeder current consists of rapidly moving water that parallels the shore. When this water reaches a channel, it switches direction and flows out to sea, forming the neck of the rip. This is the fastest-moving part of the riptide, and can carry swimmers out to sea at a speed of up to 10km/h. The head is formed past the breakers where the current quickly dissipates.

If you find yourself caught in a riptide, it’s important to conserve your energy and not to panic and fight the current – this is the principal cause of drownings. It’s impossible to swim directly back to shore. Instead, tread water and let yourself be swept out past the breakers. Once you’re in the head of the rip, you can swim parallel or diagonally to the shore until you’re out of the channel, then swim back to shore with the waves.

Rip currents usually occur on beaches that have strong surf, and there are indicators, such as the brownish color on the surface of the water that is caused by swept-up sand and debris. If you’re ever in doubt about the safety of a beach, inquire locally about swimming conditions. Remember, rips are survivable as long as you relax, don’t panic and conserve your energy.