Rip currents are fast-moving channels of water that can pull even experienced swimmers out to sea. Make sure every member of your family knows these rip current safety tips before spending a day at the beach.

By Nicole Harris
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Every so often, devastating headlines about rip currents show up in the news. The fast-moving water took the lives of 68 people in 2018 alone. Some deaths involve individuals getting caught in the current—including a 22-year-old newlywed who drowned on his honeymoon in Florida in July 2019. Other deaths happened as family members rescued loved ones, such as the Georgia father who saved his 8-year-old daughter from a rip current but ended up drowning himself. Part of the problem is lack of education about rip current safety.

Here’s everything you need to know about rip currents, including how to spot them and how to get out of them.

What is a Rip Current?

“A rip current is a narrow fast-moving channel of water flowing from the shore out to sea,” says Allison Allen, chief of the Marine, Tropical, and Tsunami Services Branch of NOAA's National Weather Service. Rip currents can happen anywhere with breaking waves, including the large sandy beaches that function as vacation hotspots. They’re also common around jetties, piers, rocks, and sandbars. “What most people don’t realize is that rip currents can also appear on sunny days—not just with stormy weather,” says Allen. They’re most common during low tide, and they can be found on the East Coast, West Coast, Gulf Coast, and Great Lakes. 

Rip currents are dangerous because of their sheer strength. “A rip current doesn't pull you underwater; it pulls you away from shore,” says Allen. Many people panic when they're caught in a rip current and try swimming against it. However, this easily tires them out, which significantly raises the risk of drowning. Allen compares rip currents to Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps—”they’re actually faster than Michael Phelps can swim,” she says. In fact, according to the National Ocean Service, rip currents can move up to eight feet per second. How dangerous they are depends on waves, tide, and the ocean floor. 

What to Do If You Get Caught in a Rip Current

If you’re stuck in a rip current, the most important thing is staying calm. Aggressive swimming and flailing will tire you out, making it easier to get pulled underwater. Try signaling to someone on shore, whether it’s a family member or a lifeguard, to alert them of your situation.

“Then just relax and float, since rip currents don’t pull you under—they pull you out to sea,” says Allen. Never try breaking out of a rip current by swimming against it. Instead, swim parallel to the shoreline to escape the fast-moving water.

What to Do If Your Child Is Caught in a Rip Current

If your child or any other friend or family member gets caught in a rip current, your first instinct will be to dive into the water to save them. However, as recent news stories report, this panicked response can end in disaster.

“Rather than immediately launching yourself in the water, grab something that floats and throw that to the victim, then signal a lifeguard,” advises Allen. If you’re not around a lifeguard, then you can cautiously approach the person and offer a helping hand—as long as you hold onto something that floats yourself. 

Life-Saving Rip Current Safety Tips

Here are the most important rip current safety tips, according to the National Weather Service:

  • Never swim against rip currents. Swim parallel to the shore instead.
  • Don’t swim alone.
  • Only swim at beaches with lifeguards on duty
  • “Make sure that children know how to handle a rip current,” says Allen. “And always stay within an arm’s reach of a small child in the ocean.”

Can You Avoid Rip Currents?

It can be hard to spot a rip current, which is partly why they’re so dangerous. Allen recommends searching from an elevated location, such as dunes or a beach access way, rather than the water’s edge. Rip currents look like “a place where waves aren’t breaking as much” near the water's edge, she says. “You might also see flat spots in the ocean, foam, sediment, and dislocated water going from the beach back out to sea.” 

To avoid rip currents, only swim in guarded beaches, since lifeguards are trained to spot them. You should also be mindful of flags and signs along the beach. Avoid sand bars, piers, jetties, and other shallow places along the shoreline.

“And check the forecast before you go out,” says Allen. “A forecast with waves over two or three feet during low tide” has the biggest potential to form rip currents. 

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