11 Mar LOCATING + MANAGING RIP CURRENTS
A common subject we get asked about. It’s really important to be able to spot and manage rips to stay safe, but also they can become a benefit as you gain experience.
In its simplest form, a rip current is a body of water moving away from the beach. They are created when waves push gallons and gallons of water towards the shore and that water has to escape back out to sea due to the tidal movement. The water will escape through the area of least resistance (which is a posh way of saying, the area of the beach which has the deepest water channel running from the shore towards the horizon).
Along all beaches, you will find deep-water gulleys, which are created by the wave action moving the sandbanks around. Rivers or streams flowing into the sea and carving deep-water troughs can also create them. The gulleys allow the water that has been pushed towards the shore by waves, to flow back out to sea. You can visualise it by thinking of a river running through the middle of the sea. Surfers call these areas ‘channels’ or ‘rips’. Lifeguards sometimes refer to them as ‘holes’.
Being pulled out towards the horizon can be an unnerving experience if you don’t expect it. So spotting them before you go into the water or asking for advice from lifeguards or locals will put your mind at ease. Fortunately, in the UK they’re rarely too dangerous as we have a long, flat continental shelf so the water travels more slowly as it returns out to sea. But in countries like France, Australia and Hawaii, where waves are more powerful and the force of the water flow returning towards the horizon is stronger, they can be something that you need to be really aware of.
HOW TO LOCATE A RIP:
Try to gain a vantage point on higher ground before heading onto the beach if possible. You can look out for:
- Water moving outwards (sometimes it’s really easy to see, such as a trail of white water on the surface or choppy water that looks like a flowing river)
- Darker, deeper patches of water
- No waves breaking (as the water is moving in the opposite direction and it is a deep water area so there are no sandbanks to make the waves break)
- Debris floating out to sea
- Stand in the shallows, sometimes you can feel the current pulling you one way or another
- Ask a lifeguard – this is by far the best way. If there aren’t any lifeguards, ask a local surfer.
TYPES OF RIPS:
This current can form suddenly and vanish just as fast due to decreasing water levels or increasing wave heights. It is often caused if a sandbank collapses and creates a deep-water gulley that didn’t exist before. The water that is returning to the horizon
will quickly fill this gulley and travel more quickly out towards the horizon.
The wave pressure breaking in the same spot for a long time, eventually making gaps in sandbars usually forms this funnel. These rips can stay in the same place for days, weeks, or even months. It’s these that you should be aware of at your local break and be able to use to your advantage when paddling out.
This type of rip is usually formed because of permanent features such as a reef, pier or cliff. Water will run up the side of stationary features like piers and surfers often use them as a means of travelling outback easily. It’s like jumping on an escalator!
HOW TO GET OUT OF A RIP:
- Swim or paddle your surfboard against it – you won’t be able to travel faster than the rip, so you’ll exhaust yourself with no gain
- Panic or take off your leash. Remember that if you are on your board floating, then you are safe until you are released from the current or can be rescued
- Swim or paddle your surfboard parallel to the shore towards where the waves are breaking (Rip currents are typically only 5 to 30 metres wide)
- Go with the flow – Lie on your board and keep your leash on. If you are swimming, float on your back and conserve your energy. The rip will ultimately release you
- If you become tired, staying calm and wait for help
- Shout for help and signal to lifeguards
WHEN RIPS ARE GOOD:
If you are an intermediate or advanced surfer, a rip can be useful as you can ‘ride’ them outback (beyond the breaking waves). If you are hoping to try this for the first time, go with somebody more experienced or an instructor. This is something that we cover during our coaching weekends and holidays. It’s a really important and useful skill in your surfing development.