Don’t Let Rip Currents Ruin Your Day at the Beach

By Diane Tait

Image courtesy flickr
If you’re a surfer, the past few weeks have been a joy.  With two hurricanes passing offshore, the waves have been awesome.  For the rest of the beach-going public on the east coast of Florida, the situation has been more like awful.  That’s because the storm tides have created rip currents that can pose a threat to the average beach-goer.  Since the threat of rip tides won’t stop most beach bunnies, I thought I’d devote this week’s blog to telling you how to keep from being swept out to sea and possibly drowned by these treacherous currents.

      1.       What’s a rip current? – Rip currents are narrow and highly directional channels of water that flow at high speed away from the beach.  They can form any time wind and water converge to form breakers.  Since their speed can exceed six knots, this makes it impossible to swim against these currents.  Not even Michael Phelps can swim fast enough to thwart a rip tide.  Don’t think that it takes monster surf to produce a rip current.  Waves as low as 2-3 feet high can cause a rip. 

      2.       Who’s it going to hurt? The reason that many swimmers get in deep trouble when it comes to rip currents is because the more you try to fight them, the quicker you’ll tire out and begin to flounder in the surf.  Since rip currents can extend as far as 100-yards offshore, you’ll run out of steam long before they do.  Every year there are more than 30,000 rescues performed in the US from rip currents.  There are also more than 100 drowning deaths annually, with Florida topping the list.

Image courtesy USAF
Who you gonna call? – Particularly when the waves are high, trying to yell for help while the rip drags you out to sea is one of the quickest ways to wind up going under.  The most serious mistake any swimmer can make when he or she encounters a rip current is to panic.  Trying to open your mouth to shout for help when the current is running is an invitation to swallow a mouthful of water. 

      4.      Can rip currents hide in plain sight?The worst thing about a rip current is its ability to hide in plain sight.  Along any stretch of beach, a rip current can set up right next to an area free of a rip.  That’s because the flow that produces a rip is limited in scope.  The way a rip current is established is by wave action piling the water up against the shore.  High surf creates and tops sandbars which can form a kind of dam that’s out of sight to swimmers.  When a portion of a sandbar damming up the water fails, this is where the rip gets started. Water naturally seeks its own level, causing the outgoing flow of water to create underwater rapids that are fast enough to suck a wading bather off their feet.  While rips can occur during either high or low tide, they are more powerful during low tide since the tide is heading out to sea as well.  These deadly currents are like wolves in sheep’s clothing, since an area where a rip current is present can look less dangerous due to the fact that areas containing rips actually produce less wave activity.  This can make the area look calmer, when it is anything but.

      5.      Before you run into the surf, check the color of the flags? – On most beaches, lifeguards place color-coded flags to warn bathers of rip currents.  Green flags mean there is little danger of a rip current.  Yellow represents a moderate risk.  Red means there is a high risk of rip currents.  Just like a stoplight, if you see a red flag, that means you should stop to think twice before going into the water. 

Image courtesy Pixabay
      6.      It doesn’t take much to wind up over your head with it comes to rip tides – You don’t have to be chest deep to wind up being grabbed by a rip current.  Adults and particularly children can get in trouble in water that only reaches their knees.  Also known as an undertow, these rogue currents can suck a swimmer off their feet and out through the gap in the sandbar faster than a flushing toilet.  It’s this sense of loss of control that generally causes people to panic when caught in a rip.  Even worse is when friends or family members try to go to the rescue only to wind up caught in the same watery trap.  If you see someone caught in a rip current, the smartest thing to do is to alert the closest lifeguard.  Lifeguards are not only trained to deal with these deadly currents, they are properly equipped to rescue a victim.  If there are no lifeguards nearby, the only other alternative is to get a surfer to ride out on their board to rescue anyone in trouble in the water.  Whatever you do, do NOT jump into the water or you may have to be rescued as well.  Eight out of ten beach drownings are attributed to people caught in rip currents and it isn’t uncommon for more than one victim to be pulled out of the surf at the same time.

      7.        What should you do if you get caught in a rip current? – Since rip currents are generally less than 50-feet wide, your best defense if you feel yourself being pulled out toward deep water is to swim perpendicular to the flow.  In other words, swim down the beach as opposed to straight toward the shore.  While you may get carried out a little way, you won’t tire yourself out trying to fight the flow.  Sooner or later you’ll swim past the point where the rip current holds sway.  Then you’ll be able to swim back to shore with no problem. If you feel yourself flagging, float on your back and wave for help.  Floating is a lot easier than dog paddling.  The most important thing is not to succumb to panic.  Do that and you’re sunk for sure.

One of the reasons people from all over the world visit Florida is to enjoy the beaches.  Make sure you and yours have fun at the beach by learning how to keep rip currents from ruining your day.

Diane Tait owns and operates A&B Insurance.  To find out more about how you can save money on home owner’s insurance, go to her site or fill out the form at right.


  1. And I thought all I had to worry about at the beach were sharks.

  2. Several people drown at florida beaches each year because they don't heed the warning of rip currents. Heed the warning!


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