Riptides, more appropriately called rip currents, are responsible for more than 100 drownings every year in the United States. And while they disproportionately put weaker swimmers at risk, even the strongest swimmers are not immune to their dangers. These currents pull their victims out to sea, and swimmers often get too tired to continue fighting, resulting in the need for rescue and, unfortunately, sometimes death.
What is a Riptide?
A riptide is a strong current that moves from the shoreline outward after waves break. Any body of water that has breaking waves (oceans, Great Lakes, etc.) can put you at risk of finding yourself in a rip current. They tend to occur in low water near piers or by sandbars. When deep water waves break near the shallow surfaces, sometimes the water churns in circles, creating a current that reaches the water’s surface and pulls out toward sea. These currents can move so quickly that even an Olympic-level swimmer doesn’t have the capacity to fight it.
What to Do and Not Do in a Riptide
If you find yourself caught in a riptide, here are a few Do’s and Don’t’s
- Remain calm, but call out for help. Always swim where there is a lifeguard around.
- Keep your head above the water.
- Swim sideways (parallel to the shoreline) rather than toward the shore. Rip currents are rarely wider than 80 feet or so. If the current is still too strong to swim sideways, then allow the water to carry you out a bit farther until you are where the current calms down. Once the current is weaker, then swim sideways.
- Once you are out of the current, swim diagonally toward the shore.
- Panic. That will make breathing and swimming more difficult.
- Swim toward the shore. You are likely not strong enough to swim through such a strong and fast current. That will cause you to tire quickly and possibly drown.
Remember, riptides can occur without warning. And it is virtually impossible to tell, while you are in one, how fast and strong the current is. But, they are survivable, as long as you keep your head.
Surviving a riptide is more likely if:
- You do not swim alone.
- You swim on beaches that have lifeguards.
- You keep your eye out for debris or foam that looks like it is traveling in a line away out toward sea.
- You avoid areas of choppy water that appears to be churning up to the surface (often by sandbars or piers).
Though not always possible, the best way to survive a riptide is to not find yourself in one in the first place. Everything from water discoloration to beach sign warnings can provide you with clues that you might encounter a riptide. We want you to enjoy the beach and be safe while doing it.