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How to Spot a Rip Current

Understanding Rip Currents & Surf Safety. 

Being able to spot a rip current is an important skill that could one day save your life or the life of other surfers. In this post we aim to highlight some vital information about rip currents and basic surf safety. 

What is a rip current? 

A rip current is a body of water that travels away from the shore, out to sea. This body of water contains strong flowing currents that can move quickly out to the deep ocean, often exhausting the surfers ability to out paddle the rip currents strength.  

Rip Current:

'A body of water trying to find it''s own level'

 

How to identify a rip

- Look for patches of water that are darker in colour to the surrounding water

- The surface of the water flickers or dances in the area where the rip is

- Waves look different and don't break as often

The characteristics of rips change quickly and don't always show all of the above signs at once. 

 

Why are rip currents dangerous? 

"Rips are strong currents running out to sea, which can quickly drag people and debris away from the shallows of the shoreline and out to deeper water." (Source)

 

How to handle a rip current?

If caught in a rip current, don't fight it! Paddle parallel to the shore or back to land at a 45 degree angle.

- Examine your options

- Never ditch your surfboard

- Call for help 

- Paddle parallel to the shore or an angle of 45 degrees to escape the 'grip of the rip'. Never swim against it.

 

What causes a rip current? 

Rips are made up of three distinct parts. Understanding the details of each of these greatly improves your knowledge and understanding of what causes rips and understanding how to deal with them. 

Diagram showing three main feature of a rip current

Feeder - This is where the rip originates and is where the water brought towards the shoreline by waves, starts to recede back into the ocean.

Neck - As waves break and dissipate on the shallow shoreline, water then needs to return back out to deeper water.

In areas of the beach where there are deep channels sided by shallow sand banks or fixed piers or headlands, water will naturally flow towards deeper areas and back out to sea.

Head - This is typically behind the surf zone and often where the strength of the current will weaken and slow down. 

 

What are the different types of rips?

Fixed - Often found at large exposed surfing beaches, away from headlands, rocks or piers. As sand bars build, shift and break up, fixed or 'open coast beach rips'  can be found regularly along the beach. 

Permanent - Found where the beach has established piers, cliffs, groyne's or any permanent feature extending into the surf zone. Otherwise known as 'Topographic rips', these immovable obstructions interrupt the parallel flow of water, and force the rip to travel along the feature out towards the ocean. 

Travelling - Initially this form of rip current travels parallel to the shoreline, then changes in direction heading out to sea. 

Flash rips - Caused by a sudden shift in sand banks or large increase in surf size. 

 

Key points & facts about rips

Rip Currents are caused by waves

Rip currents can be very strong and travel up to eight feet per second. 

Rip currents account for over 80% of rescues performed by beach lifeguards in the US. (Source) 

Over 60% of RNLI lifeguard incidents involve rip currents. (Source)

A rip is strongest near the surface of the sea.