You’re swimming along the beach, having a good time, when suddenly a current overtakes you. It feels like you’re being pulled under, but in reality, you’re being quickly swept out to sea, the shore becoming smaller and smaller with each second. This is what happens when you find yourself in a rip current—one of the ocean’s most common and dangerous phenomena. In Florida, they kill more people annually than thunderstorms, hurricanes, and tornadoes combined. So, in order to keep yourself and your family safe, you should understand everything there is to know about rip currents.
What are rip currents?
When waves travel from the deeper ocean to the shallow coastline, they end up breaking as they reach the coast. As the waves break, they then retreat, following the path of least resistance. As a result, a narrow channel of powerful, fast-moving water forms perpendicular to the coast.
This is a rip current, and inside this powerful channel, the water can be moving up to 1 to 2 feet per second. They’ve even been recorded as having speeds up to 8 feet per second—faster than an Olympic swimmer. They typically form around low spots in the ocean floor such as the shoreline, near breaks between sandbars, or around human-made structures.
How to spot a rip current
Rip currents can be difficult to spot, but not impossible. Here are the typical signs of a rip current:
- Calm patches of water in between turbulent waves
- Channels of choppy water
- One area with different colored water than the rest
- A line of foam, seaweed, or debris moving out to sea
- A break in the incoming waves
How to escape a rip current
Because rip currents are difficult to detect, it’s easy to be caught in one. If you find yourself in a rip current, follow these steps to get out safely:
- Don’t panic—breathe and keep your head above the water
- Call for help the moment you feel yourself being pulled away
- Do NOT fight it—it’s impossible for a human to swim against such a fast current, and doing so will cause fatigue, making it difficult to keep your head above water
- Swim sideways instead, toward whitewater where the waves are breaking
- If it’s too difficult to swim sideways, tread water and let nature take its course, calling for help when you can