Why Are Rip Currents Dangerous?

A rip current.
A rip current.

What Is a Rip Current?

A rip current is a narrow current of water that occurs near the shoreline of a beach with breaking waves. They are strong currents of water that flow away from the beach, like a river flowing into the ocean, and are most active near the water's surface. Rip currents are created by strong winds that push water toward the shoreline, and are hazardous to swimmers in the water, especially those who do not understand what is occurring. Rips are formed when waves break near the shore, causing a rise in the amount of water between the beach and the breaking waves, and this excess water can return to the ocean through a rip current, causing a narrow but powerful stream of water moving away from the beach.

Dangers of Rip Currents

A rip current can be dangerous to swimmers in the shallow waters of oceans, seas, or large lakes with breaking waves. In fact, rip currents are the cause of over 80% of rescues at beaches. These currents flow at a speed of about 1.6 ft/s, but they can exceed 8.2 ft/s, which is much faster than even the best swimmers. Rip currents are usually narrow, and therefore swimmers can escape the rip current by swimming at a right-angle to the flowing water, which is parallel to the shore. However, swimmers who are not aware of how rip currents work can exhaust themselves by attempting to swim against the current. Rip currents tend to fade outside the zone of the breaking wave, and therefore there is a limit to how far away from the shore a swimmer can be carried by a rip current.

An inexperienced swimmer can panic and drown upon encountering a rip current, while others swim against the strong current, end up exhausting themselves, and then drown. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) estimates that rip currents are responsible for an average of 46 deaths each year in the United States, while the United States Lifesaving Association claims the number of deaths caused by rip currents in the US exceeds one hundred. Research in Australia reported that rips within the country killed more swimmers than shark attacks, cyclones, floods, and bushfires combined in 2013.

How to Escape Rip Currents

Swimmers caught in rip currents will notice that the water is moving away from the shoreline, and therefore it is often impossible to swim against the current and back to the shore. Rip currents do not pull swimmers underwater but carry them away from the beach. Rip currents are like moving treadmills, and swimmers can escape them by swimming across the current until they exit the rip. Once out of the rip, swimming back to the shore can be easy in places where waves are breaking, and swimmers and floating objects are pushed to the beach.

Alternatively, swimmers can either swim or float with the direction of the rip until the current dissipates. Once the rip dissipates, swimmers can return to the shore or signal for help. Coastal swimmers must be aware of the dangers associated with rip currents and learn how to identify them. Swimmers must also know how to deal with rip currents and are encouraged to swim in areas where a lifeguard is on duty. Experienced swimmers, kayakers, surfers, and kayakers use rip currents to move past breaking waves effortlessly.


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