“Rip Currents … What Every Water User Needs to Know” by Tim Jones
Rips are, to most of us, a fantastic aid to our surfing when understood. They help us pass out through waves to the takeoff area and often they define the “peak” and create a better breaking wave.
So what are rips? A definition from the US Coast Guard …
RIP CURRENTS ARE POWERFUL CHANNELS OF WATER FLOWING QUICKLY AWAY FROM SHORE … WHICH OCCUR MOST OFTEN AT LOW SPOTS OR BREAKS IN THE SANDBAR AND IN THE VICINITY OF ROCKS AND STRUCTURES SUCH AS GROINS, JETTIES AND PIERS
Annually, in the US, there are on average 100+ deaths from rips. In the UK, two in every three (2/3) water rescues are because of rips. Rips in the UK account for more deaths than bicycle accidents!
In Australia (2004‚ 2012), deaths per year attributable to Rips = 21; Cyclones = 7.5; Bush fires = 5.9; Floods = 4.3; and Sharks = 1. So when many beach goers in some parts of the world fear a shark attack, they would be far better served to understand and spot rips and respect the dangers they represent.
We, as surfers, can pass on this basic knowledge to others, surfers, or not. Remembering the US Coast Guard definition above, and observing the simple diagram of how rips work below, we can understand a few key principles.
There are a few different types of rip and these are:
- Permanent or Topographic
- Travelling or Side Rip. Not long shore drift.
The Permanent or Topographic Rip
Let’s look at how each is defined. Firstly, the Permanent or Topographic rip uses physical features at the beach such as: rocks, piers, groins, sea walls and the water (rip), running out along these features. To help you find it, just look at how next to the feature there seems to be an area of calm water with little or no waves. In this picture below you can see the rip passing along the beach towards the cliffs. This is our Travelling or Side Rip. Then you can clearly see where it passes along the rocks and heads out to sea causing a clear path in the water. Look for the dark blue line with the white water each side. You can clearly see its path along the rocks and out to sea. Check how, as it moves away from the rocks, it loses it power and dissipates.
In this picture from Australia, the lifeguards have placed a coloured dye in the water to define the Permanent or Topographic rip.
The Fixed Rip
It’s quite a misleading name, “Fixed”, as these are rips that stay in one general area of a beach, but can move even up to 100m from one side to another. This is due to the change in density of the sand by wave action and the general topography of the beach. The picture on the right shows the gap in the surf line and the travelling rip which is coming from the left hand side of the beach (looking out to sea) and feeding into the rip.
Of course, we may get more than one type, or even all types, of rips occurring on a beach. Here is a particularly illustrative example. At the top of the picture we see a Permanent or Topographic rip running out by the rocks and road (note the absence of surf) and then below is our fixed rip causing a break in the surf line yet again.
These often occur when a sand bar on a beach breaks down by wave and tidal action or as the tide moves past an outcrop of rocks. The diagram below illustrates typically how such a rip can arise. As the name suggests, they occur suddenly and can often be a great danger to swimmers who often do not know what to do if caught unawares in them.
How wide are rip currents, how fast can they flow, and where do they go?
On average, rips are typically about 9.5m or 31ft wide, but this is a real average as they can be less or more, and particularly the flash rips ‘begin’ by being very narrow. However, it’s a good rule-of-thumb to remember that they are normally about “as wide as a bus is long”!
They move on average at approximately 6.6kph or 4.1mph. That’s some speed, about the same pace as Olympic 400m Gold Medallist, Sun Yang’s average pace. Little chance then of out swimming or out paddling the rip.
Rips flow out to sea to a distance really depending on the volume of water that’s flowing into the beach. They go to an area we call the Head. So on a small day of surf the rip may stop and form the Head only a few hundred metres out to sea. On a big day of surf you may find it flowing kilometres out to sea. Below is a classic example of a beach break rip leading to a head, but of course heads can be found on reef set ups as well. The famous Sunset Beach in Hawaii is a great example. Lost boards there are often never found again!
Caught in the rip?
Now let’s hope that this advice is not needed if you’re a regular surfer. But do pass it on to others new to the sport or those who are just happy water users anyway. Firstly, prevention, don’t let the situation happen in the first place. Get advice about the beach and the surf you’re using and be able to spot the rips before entry, but more of that later. If someone is stuck in a rip, the first rule is don’t panic, and don’t whatever you do try to paddle or swim against it. Remember how fast it is going and just go sideways and towards the breaking waves that can help you. The picture below is simple and a good example of the action to take.
NOTE: Emerging evidence suggests that simply threading water and waiting for the rip to dissipate may be a prudent approach when caught in a rip. Currently, the approach described previously and illustrated above, i.e. swimming parallel to the shoreline/at right angles to the direction of the rip, is advocated by most surf lifesaving institutions and lifeguard professionals. Further research is required to definitively determine the safest strategy. For further information, check out this insightful article New Scientist article on research conducted at the Naval Postgraduate School (NPS) in Monterey, California, USA.
It’s worth keeping in mind that people often want help even if they know what to do in a rip or when they see others caught in a rip. It’s a simple one arm in the air and waved from side-to-side to attract attention. This is like a 112 or 999 call of the sea and should be known by all and passed onto others. Just knowing this could save someone’s life and perhaps your own.
Many beaches now carry signs to remind us as shown here. Of course, just getting advice from locals and particularly lifeguards at beaches is number one. Remember, prevention is always better than cure.
So, we need to be aware of the dangers of rips, but also we may be experienced enough to want to use them to access the best surf.
So how do we spot them?
1. A gap in the waves or where waves break then “back-off” (die out) and then reform again. The water moving out either stops the waves, creates a channel, or just stops the wave from breaking.
2. The surface of the water has ripples on it even if there is no wind at all. If there is wind, it seems more wind affected. Again, this is the outward movement of water creating the surface affect.
3. The rip will carry sand, seaweed, derbies and pollution. This is often a very clear indicator of a rip.
In order to help us use rips correctly, or to keep others away from them, we need to develop the skill of using line-ups. These are markers on the beach that help keep position in the best surf zone, and thus getting the best waves.
Also, choosing line-ups keeps others safe. Lifeguards do this all the time, setting safe swimming areas marked by flags. If you check the photo below you could choose many line ups from houses, trees, etc. But never choose objects that may move like an umbrella on the beach or a parked car for example.
So rips, although dangerous to those who are unaware of them, are often our best friends in surfing. Take time to observe the ocean before entering and never be afraid to ask questions. Be aware that some rips will take us out to surf we just can’t and don’t want to handle, and other rips will take us out to the best waves of our lives. The main reason for this article is to get you to transmit this basic knowledge to others so we can all enjoy the ocean in a much safer way. Thanks. Stay safe in the water.
Tim Jones is an EASD Scout, International Surfing Association (ISA)/Surfing Great Britain (Surfing GB) certified Surf Instructor and Coach. He is¬†Director of Surf School Lanzarote. Tim has a long and active history with Surfing GB, beginning the first special needs initiative for surfing in the UK, and continues to contribute to the development of coaching skills within the organisation. The current women’s Welsh Junior and Senior Champion, Emily Williams is coached by Tim, as have past champions in Europe such as Mark Vaughen and Nathan Phillips.