Rip currents shouldn't be underestimated. The more you know about rip currents, the more likely you are to get out of the next one you are caught in.

Swimming in the ocean can be an exhilarating experience, especially for those used to swimming solely in pools. The sounds and smells as well as the sights both above the surface and below make swimming through the ocean’s waves so special.

Those very waves, however, can also be a major hazard. The problem lies with the phenomenon known as rip currents which are responsible for the great majority of rescues carried out by beach lifeguards. A rip current is a strong seaward current which appears in areas where large waves break near the shore.

Many people confuse the term with the similar “rip tide” which designates a strong ebb and flow of currents within enclosed or semi-enclosed tidal areas. Others mistakenly use the term “undertow” when referring to a rip current. An undertow is the strong pull of water you feel at your feet and lower legs as water returns from a breaking wave back to sea. Contrary to what many people believe, neither an undertow nor a rip current has the power to drag you underneath the water. A rip current can, however, get a swimmer or snorkeler into serious trouble unless he or she knows how to cope with the phenomenon.

What Causes Rip Currents

Any water brought in towards shore by breaking waves naturally needs to find an outlet. The receding water often finds its way into swift, narrow channels through which it is able to return to the open sea back beyond the breakers. This strong current which appears near the surface of the water and flows perpendicular to the beach is the rip current. It is found most commonly on beaches which lack protective reefs or barrier islands and which are therefore subject to high waves. Variable topography along the line of waves is another feature common to beaches with rip currents. These variations in terrain allow the receding current to force its way into narrow channels. Breaks between sand bars are one particularly common source of rip currents.

How to Tell if There’s a Rip Current

A stretch of water with a smooth surface in an otherwise volatile area is one good indicator of a rip current. This “path-like” stretch is often the channel finding its way back to the sea. Swimmers are often lured into the channel, as it appears so much calmer than the surrounding areas of sea. Sometimes, especially when viewed from a high vantage point, a rip current will appear as a foamy stream, often with a different coloring to the surrounding water. Occasionally, a sharp-eyed viewer may even be able to detect debris being swept through the current and out to sea.

Escaping a Rip Current

Despite the fearsome reputation which rip currents have earned, it is fortunately not too difficult to escape from them. As already noted, a rip current will not pull you under. It is a surface current which will only pull you out to sea. Drownings usually occur because swimmers caught in a rip current attempt to fight the pull of the water in a desperate attempt to swim back towards the shore. The current is often too strong to fight in this way and thus the swimmers soon exhaust themselves and are unable to keep afloat.

One technique you can use to escape a rip current is to swim either parallel to the beach or at a diagonal angle until you have freed yourself from the current. Once free, you can swim back to shore alongside the incoming waves. Another technique is to simply float with the current until it has pushed you back beyond the breaking waves. Here, as the current dissipates, it will release you and you will be able to swim back to the beach either at a diagonal or with the shore-bound waves. The most important thing to remember is not to panic and tire yourself in a vain attempt to fight the rip current.

Many people are put off swimming in the ocean because of the threat of dangerous waves. In the case of rip currents, you can evaluate the risk before you swim by being aware of conditions at a beach generally and by looking carefully at the wave formations before you take to the water. If despite such precautions you do find yourself caught in a rip current, just remember not to fight against it, however great the temptation. Yes, rip currents are a dangerous force and are certainly not something to be underestimated, but don’t let that put you off enjoying a refreshing dip in the sea next time you’re at the beach.