RIP CURRENTS - Rivers Through The Surf
Most waves are formed by wind on the water. Sea waves usually result from storms, often hundreds of miles from shore. Waves are not all equal in size. Sometimes a group of larger waves comes ashore one after another. This is known as a "set" of waves.
When waves break, water is pushed up the slope of the shore. Gravity pulls this water back toward the sea. If it converges in a narrow, river-like current moving away from shore, it forms what is known as a RIP CURRENT.
Rip currents can be 50 feet to 50 yards or more wide. They can flow to a point just past the breaking surf (the surfline) or hundreds of yards offshore. Some 80% of rescues by lifeguards at America's surf beaches are due to persons being caught in rip currents.
Rip currents may pull continuously, but they can suddenly appear or intensify after a set of waves, or when there is a breach in an offshore sandbar. Longshore currents, inshore holes, and other bottom conditions contribute to the formation of rip currents. Inshore holes and sandbars can also greatly increase the danger of spinal injury.
RIP CURRENT SURVIVAL
The sea is a wonderful playground, but you must respect its power. Learn to swim and consider participating in a junior lifeguard program. When swimming, choose an area protected by lifeguards. If you are not a strong swimmer, go no further than knee deep. If you decide to swim, check the conditions first to identify any dangerous currents. Ask a lifeguard for assistance.
You can sometimes identify a rip current by its foamy and choppy surface. The water in a rip current may be dirty (from the sand being turned up by the current). The water may be colder than the surrounding water. Waves usually do not break as readily in a rip current as in adjacent water.
If caught in a rip current, try to relax. A rip current is not an "undertow" -- it will not pull you under. Do not try to swim against the current as this is very difficult, even for an experienced swimmer. If you can do so, tread water and float. Call or wave for assistance. You can also try to swim parallel to shore until you are out of the current, then swim directly toward shore.
The same forces which cause rip currents also cause longshore currents. These currents are most evident when waves hit the shore at an angle. This tends to cause the water to be pushed along the beach away from the direction of the oncoming waves. Usually, longshore currents are less hazardous than rip currents because they move along the shore, not away from the shore, but they can knock children and weaker adults off their feet. More importantly, longshore currents can feed and increase the power of rip currents. In other words, the longshore current may move along the shore, then turn offshore to become a rip current.
Variable wave conditions, particularly seasonal changes in wave patterns, can create unevenness in the ocean bottom. This includes sandbars and sudden deep spots, called inshore holes. They can surprise waders, who suddenly find themselves over their heads. They can also create channels in the bottom, which concentrate and greatly intensify the power of rip currents. At any beach with uneven bottom conditions or obvious sandbars, a higher level of caution should be used.
FREE EDUCATIONAL MATERIALS
Click Here to download a free rip currents brochure and sign from the USLA website.
Click Here to access NOAA educational materials about Rip Currents.
CSLSA thanks the California State Lifeguards and the Trauma Research and Education Foundation for their assistance with this information.