With the second May bank holiday now behind us, the beach season has officially opened, and with it all the fun of sun, sand and surf for those brave enough to venture into the cool waters of our coastline. However, beneath the luring blue waters of the British Coast lies a hidden danger that causes deaths every year – the rip current.
What is a Rip Current?
A rip current is a relatively narrow, fast and powerful stream of water which flows away from a beach towards the sea, cutting through the ‘surf zone’, where the waves break. All the water pushed up the shore by breaking waves and wind then has to flow back down towards the water level. Water will always follow the path of least resistance, so if there is a deeper area on the shore terrain or a space such as a gap in a sand bar, the returning water can become concentrated through these channels and can form a rip current.
There are several factors that can cause rip currents; waves breaking on courses parallel to the shore, differently angled wave trains crossing paths and especially the shore topography. Natural features such as channels, shelves, sandbars and reefs which may be hidden under the water or man-made structures such as piers and jetties can all funnel the returning flow of water into a rip current.
Why are Rip Currents Dangerous?
Every year in the UK there are several deaths attributable to rip currents. Rip currents can flow up to 5 miles an hour. That might not sound so fast, until you realise an olympic swimmer cannot swim at that speed. When you have a fast current of water channelled in one direction and an average swimmer gets caught in it, they can be very quickly swept out of their depth and beyond the wave breaking area.
Rip currents are unpredictable, some appear briefly before dissipating again, some can be constant in one place for long periods of time, some may be permanent and they can be a regular occurrence in particular areas or at particular times. Several can form across a single beach and then keep rapidly changing. They can arise in all weather conditions and all wave heights, the sunny days and moderate waves which attract the most beachgoers often have strong rip currents. They can be very hard to spot until it’s too late and you’re caught in one.
How to Spot a Rip:
The ever-changing nature of the sea means that currents can be hard to identify, even to the knowledgeable. They are often easier to see from above, many experienced surfers and swimmers will assess the day’s conditions from a high vantage point first. Here are some basic signs to look for:
- Gaps between the waves breaking lines. A calmer area of water within a wave breaking zone is likely to mean water flowing in the opposite direction to the incoming waves.
- Deeper, darker water close to shore where water has carved out channels.
- Churned up seaweed, sediment and sand being carried back beyond the waves.
- An area of ripples in generally still water may show where currents from different directions are pushing against each other.
How to Survive a Rip:
Contrary to popular belief, rip currents do not pull you under the water or hold you down but they do pull you out into deeper water. As with most survival situations, the best method of survival is to avoid them in the first place, but if you find yourself being carried by a rip current, here’s what to do:
- DO: Float. Floating will conserve your energy and give you time to assess your situation. Bear in mind that the rip current might dissipate or it might even take you back to the shore.
- DO: Raise your arm and call for help.
- DO: If you are a confident swimmer, or there is nobody around to help, then try swimming parallel to the beach, towards breaking waves. As rip currents are narrow, you may be able to free yourself by exiting the side of the current. Once free of the current, swim diagonally to the beach to avoid getting caught in it again.
- DO: Use a combination of the above techniques as necessary. Every situation is different and you may need to alternate swimming, calling for help and floating to rest and stay calm.
- DON’T: Panic. This will fatigue you very quickly and put you at risk of drowning.
- DON’T: Try to swim against the current. You won’t win and you will just exhaust yourself.