How To Avoid (Or Survive) A Rip Current When Swimming In The Ocean

We associate the beach with fun and relaxation, but it’s essential that we remember who’s boss when it comes to interaction with the ocean.

Hint: It’s the ocean.

We may have giant boats and sophisticated rescue techniques, but the ocean is a tremendous and relentless force driven by the gravitational attraction of the moon. The force that can be generated by a human’s muscles is puny in comparison, and nothing demonstrates this more perfectly than a rip current.

According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association, “rip currents are powerful, channeled currents of water flowing away from shore that quickly pull swimmers out to sea. Rip currents typically extend from the shoreline, through the surf zone, and past the line of breaking waves.”

While the terms are ofter confused, rip currents are different than rip tides. A rip tide is a specific type of current associated with the swift movement of tidal water through inlets and the mouths of estuaries, embayments and harbors. Rip currents can happen anywhere, however, even on an otherwise safe stretch of shoreline that serves as a public beach.

Avoiding A Rip Current

The best way to avoid being swept up in a rip current is to learn how to spot them from the shore.

How to Avoid a Rip CurrentImage credit: NASA/NOAA

You can usually see the signs of a rip current. Often there is an area on the beach where the waves are not breaking, but instead you see sandy water or the white foam of a current headed back out to sea, as is apparent in this image:

How to Avoid a Rip CurrentImage credit: NOAA

Escaping A Rip Current

While spotting a rip current is a great way to avoid putting yourself in harm’s way, keep in mind that rip currents can form suddenly and vanish just as fast due to decreasing water levels or increasing wave heights.

If you suddenly notice that you’re being carried from shore on a rip current, it’s natural to feel panic. After all, you’re swimming as fast as you can towards the beach but the current is taking you backwards instead! “Rip currents typically flow at 1 to 2 feet per second. However, they have been known to flow as fast as 8 feet per second (about 5 miles per hour)—faster than an Olympic swimmer can sprint! They can sweep even the strongest swimmer out to sea,” reports the NOAA.

Trying to swim back to shore against the rip current will sap 100 percent of your energy in minutes, which is why people who try to fight against the rip current often die.

Your first action should be to keep your head above water, screaming and waving your arms in the hopes of attracting help. But what if there’s no help? Instead of swimming against the rip current, you want to swim perpendicular to it, parallel to the shoreline, in either direction. Rip currents are typically only 20-100 feet wide. Once you leave the rip, swim at an angle away from it towards the shore.

Remember the motto: WAVE, YELL, SWIM PARALLEL.

Get more safety information about rip currents in the video below!

Image Credit: Thinkstock


Jim Ven
Jim Ven2 years ago

thanks for the article.

Siyus Copetallus
Siyus Copetallus2 years ago

Thank you for sharing.

Elena Poensgen
Elena Poensgen2 years ago

Thank you

Valentina R.
Valentina R2 years ago

I don't swim.

Jim Ven
Jim Ven2 years ago

thanks for the article.

Maureen welch
Maureen welch2 years ago

Lots of good advice in this article and video. The best advice is to swim near a lifeguard. If you do try to rescue a person caught in a rip, ALWAYS have a flotation device between you and them or the panicked person may use you to keep themselves above water and you may end up drowning. Rip currents are not all created equal and you cannot always use the same method to get yourself out of one. Here is an excellent and comprehensive video about rip currents.

Rachael J.
Rachael J2 years ago

Thanks for the advice. They are great tips!!

Frank R.
Past Member 2 years ago

Thank you

heather g.
heather g2 years ago

Sounds rather frightening ....

Janet B.
Janet B2 years ago