And how to stay away from them.
Earlier this week, a family in Panama Beach Florida made headlines when they were swept out into the water by a rip current. More than 70 strangers made a human chain stretching into the waves and managed to save all nine family members.
Rip currents can be a dangerous part of any beach day. And though many people refer to these scary currents as “rip tides,” B. Chris Brewster, liason officer at the United States Lifesaving Association (USLA), says this is incorrect. “It is not a tidally influenced current. It’s a current created by turf.”
Rip currents can occur on any beach where there is a surf. They occur when there is a mix of both strong waves and softer waves causing “circulation cells” that lead to “narrow, fast-moving belts of water traveling off shore,” according to the USLA website.
“The most dangerous thing about them is they pull you off shore,” says Brewster. “They can pull at a speed that is stronger than an Olympic swimmer can swim.”
And although they can be hard to spot, there are some warning signs. “If there are breaking waves and there is an area where the waves aren’t breaking—and it looks calmer—that is typically where currents are,” says Brewster. “People assume it’s the safer place, when in fact the safer place is where waves are breaking.”
Sometimes these currents can also stir up sand and other debris from the ocean floor, which can cause discoloration in the water—something else to look out for.
Nevertheless, Brewster stresses that rip currents can be subtle in appearance and advises swimmers to always visit a beach with lifeguards. “The chance of drowning death at a beach guarded by lifeguards is 1 in 18 million beach visits,” Brewster says, quoting statistics from the USLA website. Lifeguards can help swimmers—both novice and advanced—safely navigate tricky—and potentially life-threatening—situations like rip currents.
If you do find yourself in a rip current, the first rule is not to fight the current, says Brewster. Since the current is moving at such a fast speed, you will only tire yourself out and cause panic. “If you feel yourself being pulled away from shore at a surf beach, swimming against that current is not going to work out well for you,” he says. Instead, try to stay calm and swim parallel to the shore.
Swimmers in danger can also try to stay in place by treading water, says Brewster. "In some cases, rip currents will move in a somewhat circular pattern, so they will eventually bring you back to shore. As long as you don’t use too much energy, you should be able to swim back to shore.”
And remember, if you can’t get out of the current on your own, alert the lifeguard—that’s what they’re there for.