How Rip Currents Work and What You Need to Know

With summer just around the corner, it's time to talk about Rip Currents. 70% of Australian beachgoers do not know how to spot a rip, find out everything you need to know here. 


What is a rip current? 

Rip currents are channeled currents of water flowing away from the shore at surf beaches. They typically extend from near the shoreline, through the surf zone and past the line of breaking waves. (The surf zone is the area between the high tide level on the beach to the seaward side of breaking waves.) 

Why are they dangerous? 

Drowning deaths occur when people pulled offshore are unable to keep themselves afloat and swim to shore. This may be due to any combination of fear, panic, exhaustion, or lack of swimming skills. Rip currents are the greatest surf zone hazard to all beachgoers. They can sweep even the strongest swimmer out to sea. Rip currents are particularly dangerous for weak and non-swimmers. 

How can I see a rip current? 

Signs that a rip current is present are very subtle and difficult for the average beachgoer to identify. Look for differences in the water color, water motion, incoming wave shape or breaking point compared to adjacent conditions. 

Look for any of these clues: 

  • Channel of churning, choppy water
  • Area having a notable difference in water color
  • Line of foam, seaweed, or debris moving steadily seaward
  • Break in the incoming wave pattern
  • One, all or none the clues may be visible. 


Some Scary Facts 

  • Each year (on average) rip currents claim more lives in Australia than bushfires, floods, cyclones and sharks combined.
  • Rip currents are responsible for an estimated 90% of the over 10,000 beach rescues made in Australia each year.
  • Australia has over 11,000 beaches and scientists estimate that up to 17,000 rips could be operating across Australia’s beaches at any given time
  • Almost all of Australia’s rip currents fatalities occur on unpatrolled beaches or outside of the red and yellow flags
  • Less than 4% of Australia’s 11,000 beaches are patrolled by Lifesavers or Lifeguards. This means that there are a lot of beaches and a lot of rips where any beachgoer could find themselves in serious trouble.
  • Many coastal tourist parks in NSW are situated closest to unpatrolled beaches that are rated as hazardous in terms of rips.
  • Many of Australia’s rip current drownings take place on isolated stretches of coastline where the nearest patrolled beach is neither close nor convenient.
  • The simplest way to describe rip currents is that they’re like river of the sea: strong, narrow, seaward flowing currents that extend from the shoreline out beyond the breaking waves. They exist to bring all that extra water that’s coming in with the breaking waves back offshore.
  • The majority of rip current drowning’s take place underneath bright blue skies, moderate waves and what appear to be perfect beach conditions.
  • Young males between the ages of 15 and 39 are the most likely to die in rip currents.

What do I do if caught in a rip? 

The golden rule is to never attempt to swim against the current - they’re just too powerful. Remember to stay calm and focus on floating. Just go with the current and raise your hand for help. 

  • Try to remain calm to conserve energy.
  • Don’t fight the current. 
  • Think of it like a treadmill you can’t turn off. You want to step to the side of it. 
  • Swim across the current in a direction following the shoreline. 
  • When out of the current, swim and angle away from the current and towards shore. 

How can I help others caught in a rip? 

You can help someone caught in a rip current by:

  • If you see someone in trouble, get help from a lifeguard 
  • If no lifeguard is available, have someone call the local Emergency Number (911 in the US, 000 in Australia). 
  • Throw the rip current victim something that floats – a lifejacket, a cooler, a ball. 
  • Yell instructions on how to escape. 
  • Many have died trying to help others. Don’t become a victim while trying to help someone else! 
  • Before you leave for the beach, check the latest National Weather Service forecast for local beach conditions. Many offices issue a Surf Zone Forecast. 
  • When you arrive at the beach, ask on-duty lifeguards about rip currents and any other hazards that may be present.

We hope you all have an amazing summer and fun at the beach, but remember the ocean is a dangerous place and precautions need to be taken.

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