Rip Current Safety Swimming Tips

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What is a Rip Current?

A rip current is a channel of water moving directly away from the shore at a perpendicular angle. These currents are formed by the waves pushing the water up the beach and the uneven topography of the seabed meaning the water runs back out to sea where the seabed is the deepest. For example, a rip current might form where there is a break in a sandbar.

Rip currents can occur wherever waves are found as they are formed by the waves and wind rather than the tide. This means that they can occur off beaches, at headlands, at the mouth of estuaries or in lakes. In some locations rip currents will be fixed, whereas in other places, rip currents may unpredictably appear and last for a couple of minutes (flash rip currents). However, even with fixed rip currents, the speed of the current is unpredictable and can change very quickly.

How to Spot Rip Currents

Rip currents can be found in many open water swimming locations so before getting in for your swim, it’s important that you check the water for any rip currents. But what are you looking out for?

Things to look out for:

  • An area of wave-free darker water with breaking waves on either side.
  • A channel of water flowing directly away from shore.
  • Sea foam or seaweed that is moving out to sea in streaks/lines that are perpendicular rather than parallel to the shore.

How can Rip Currents be Dangerous?

Rip currents are lateral water movements so they don’t pull you down under the water, instead they pull you out to sea. How far out to sea depends on the rip current. Some currents will dissipate just past the breaking waves. Whereas others can continue hundreds of metres offshore. 

Most of the time rip currents are reasonably slow, so don’t cause much of a threat. However, as rip currents are highly unpredictable and water speeds can quickly change, the danger levels of rip current can also quickly change. Rip current speeds can exceed those of the fastest Olympic swimmers, meaning however talented and experienced a swimmer you are, you need to know how to properly deal with a rip current.

But if rip currents don’t pull you under the water, what’s the danger? The danger is that many people don’t know what to do when they find themselves in a rip current. This leads to people panicking and swimming against the current (which uses up their energy without doing anything useful). This panic and fatigue leads to people drowning which is what makes rip currents dangerous.

What’s the Difference Between a Riptide and a Rip Current?

Unlike rip currents that are formed by the waves, wind and topography of the shoreline (making them unpredictable), riptides are predictable currents caused by the tidal forces from the moon and sun's gravity. These riptides don’t occur on the shore line but instead can be found where there are narrow areas of water that a large amount of water needs to flow through, making it flow faster. For example, in the opening to harbours, ports, in lagoons or inlets.

Riptides can be dangerous for both swimmers and boats. However, due to their location and their predictability, swimmers (and sailors) are able to plan their journey so that the riptide helps them move in the right direction rather than pulling them away from where they want to go. 

However, as riptides can extend for miles (unlike the narrower area of a rip current), if a swimmer does get caught in a riptide that is pulling them out to sea, they should focus on floating and attracting attention to themselves. Trying to swim out of a riptide without swimming towards an obviously safe location could mean miles of swimming, risking fatigue and drowning.

Rip Current


Caused by the wind, waves and topography of the seabed.

Caused by the ocean tides.



Occurs on the shore line.

Occurs at inlets, openings to harbours, ports and lagoons.

Narrow channel that can go on for 50-200 feet.

Can go on for miles.

What Should You Do If You’re Caught in a Rip Current?

The most important thing you need to do if you find yourself in a rip current is to stay calm. If you feel like you’re panicking, roll onto your back, float and focus on controlling your breathing. Once you feel calmer (and if you have the energy), you can try to swim out of the current. 

When you try to swim out of the current, do not swim directly towards shore. However strong a swimmer you are, the current is likely to be faster than you. Swimming into the current will just tire you out and you will continue to move out to sea. 

Instead, swim parallel to the shore. This will be towards either side of the channel where there are breaking waves. Once you’re out of the rip current channel, you can swim back towards the shore at a slight angle away from the rip current (to avoid being pulled back into the current).

As rip currents are usually narrow channels (usually 50 feet or less), you shouldn’t have to swim too far until you’ve escaped the current. However, if you feel too tired or panicked to swim safely out of the current, focus on staying afloat and try to draw attention to yourself from anyone on shore.

How to Stay Safe when Swimming with Currents

Bringing safety equipment with you on your swim could save your life. The main piece of equipment that will help you if you get caught in a rip current is a tow float. Not only does your tow float make you more visible in the water, but it can be used to try to attract attention to yourself in an emergency and you can use it to support you while floating.

Other equipment you can bring with you to help attract attention to yourself in an emergency includes a whistle and a light. A Waterproof phone bag is also a great addition to your open water swim gear as it allows you to phone for help and give your gps if you find yourself in a rip current.

As well as bringing the right equipment, there are other things you can do to stay safe in the water. Before getting in for your swim, assess the water and see if you can see any rip currents. If you can, avoid these areas. If you’re already in the water and the sea becomes rougher, swim directly back to shore. Don’t swim to a calmer area without waves as this is likely a rip current.

To be safe, it’s best to use lifeguarded beaches. This means that someone is there to help you should you get into trouble. These beaches also usually have signs and flags that indicate where it’s safe to swim. For example, between the red and yellow flags.

Having someone on shore spotting you (whether you’re on a lifeguarded beach or not) is also useful as they can get help for you quickly if you get into trouble. However, they should never enter a rip current to help you as they will then also be caught in the rip current. Instead they should call for help and shout instructions to keep you calm and help you escape the current.

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