Written by: Alex Smith
More than 80% of water rescues on surf beaches are due to rip currents, as the leading surf hazard for all beachgoers. Rip currents can occur at any surf beach with breaking waves, including the Great Lakes. The more you learn about them, the better. As a surfer, its important to respect the ocean and recognize its power. Here are some tips on what to look for and what to do if you get caught in one.
A rip current is a suction of water that pulls you away from the sand into open and deeper water. Rip currents are the leading surf hazard for all beachgoers. Their speeds are typically 1-2 feet per second. However, speeds as high as 8 feet per second have been measured – this is faster than an Olympic swimmer can sprint! Thus, rip currents can sweep even the strongest swimmer out to sea.
A rip current is a horizontal current. They do not pull people under the water, but rather they people away from shore. Drowning deaths occur when people pulled offshore are unable to keep themselves afloat and swim to shore. This may be due to any combination of fear, panic, exhaustion, or lack of swimming experience.
There are 3 main components to a rip current, which include the FEEDER(S), the NECK and the HEAD (diagram above). As waves approach, they will break along the sandbars (shaded light blue) then finally impact the beach (shaded brown). After contacting the beach zone the water becomes trapped by the sandbars, thus finds the path of least resistance, accelerated by gravity back to the ocean. This path is usually a break between two sandbars, as shown in the diagram. The current becomes focused between the sandbars, thus increases in speed seaward. Eventually the seaward component of the rip will lose speed and disperse in the head area.
To identify a rip current, look for any of these clues before entering the water:
- A channel of churning, choppy water
- An area having a notable difference in water color
- A line of foam, seaweed, or debris moving steadily seaward
- A break in the incoming wave pattern
Thanks for taking Rip Currents 101; class dismissed! Happy surfing!