Tips for Safe Swimming in Rip Currents

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 What’s a Rip Current?

Formed by waves, wind and the topography of the seabed, rip currents are channels of water that flow straight out to sea at a perpendicular angle to the shore. Created in locations where the topography of the seabed is uneven, the water that moves up the beach (as a wave) returns to sea via the deepest bit of the sea bed. For example, rip currents form where there are breaks in sandbars as the water can quickly flow back to its normal level.

Rip currents can be found in fixed locations as well as unpredictably appearing for a few minutes along any shore line with waves (flash rip current). This includes lakes, beaches, headlands, and at the mouth of estuaries. The speed of both flash and fixed rip currents is unpredictable and can change very quickly.

How to Spot a Rip Current

Assessing the water and identifying a rip current before you get in for your open water swim can help reduce the chances of getting caught in a rip current (although you’ll still need to keep an eye out for flash rip currents). But what are you looking for when assessing the water?

Signs to look out for:

  • A channel of water that is moving directly out to sea.
  • An area of darker (due to it being slightly deeper) water. This area won’t have any waves but will have breaking waves on either side of it.
  • Streaks of Sea foam or seaweed that are moving directly out to sea.

Why are Rip Currents Dangerous?

Moving laterally (instead of vertically), rip tides will not pull you down under the water, instead they’ll pull you out to sea. How far you’ll be pulled out to sea before the rip current dissipates varies from just past the surrounding breaking waves to hundreds of metres out.

Rip currents flow at varying speeds. When these currents are quite slow, swimming out of a rip current is quite easy. However, when the speed of rip currents increases (which can happen quickly and without any warning), you need to know how to safely escape. Even if you are an experienced or very skilled swimmer, you won’t be able to swim against a rip current that is moving faster than the fastest Olympic swimmer.

As rip currents don’t pull you under the water, the main danger with getting caught in a rip current is that many swimmers panic and attempt to swim directly back to shore (without any success). This fear and fatigue leads people to struggle and ultimately drown in the rip current.

What are the Differences Between Rip Currents and Riptides?

Riptides aren’t formed by the unpredictable wind, waves and seabed topography on the shore like rip currents. Instead they are formed by the predictable regular tides of the ocean and occur in areas of narrowing water. For example, inlets, openings to ports and harbours and lagoons. Riptides develop here because a large amount of water is being pushed by the tide through a narrower area meaning the water speeds up to allow the volume of water to pass through the smaller area.

Creating risks to both swimmers and sailors, riptides can be dangerous if not researched and planned for. However, due to their location, swimmers are more likely to come across a rip current than a riptide. But if you do find yourself caught in a riptide, trying to swim out of the tide could mean swimming for miles and miles, causing fatigue and risking drowning. Therefore, unless there is a specific safe location out of the tide that you can see, you should just focus on floating and attracting attention to yourself.

Rip Current


Caused by the wind, waves and topography of the shore.

Caused by the ocean tides.



Found on the shore line.

Found at openings to ports, harbours, inlets and lagoons.

Narrow area lasting for 50-200 feet.

Large area lasting for miles.

What to do if You’re Caught in a Rip Current

The first thing to do if you get caught in a rip current is to stay calm. If you feel yourself panicking, take a minute to calm down. Float by rolling onto your back and take some deep breaths. Once you’re calm, you can take steps to safely escape the rip current.

It can feel tempting to try to swim directly towards shore to escape the rip current. However, this will only waste your energy as the speed of the current will keep pushing you out to sea, however fast a swimmer you are.

Instead of swimming directly to shore, swim parallel to shore towards an area that has breaking waves. Once you’re out of the rip current, you can then swim back to shore. However, we recommend swimming back to shore at an angle away from the rip current to avoid accidentally swimming back into the current.

Rip currents are narrow channels, usually no wider than 50 feet (although they can occasionally extend up to 200 feet). This means that competent swimmers (which all open water swimmers should be) should be able to escape the rip current as long as they swim parallel rather than directly towards the shore. However, if you’re struggling, focus on floating and trying to draw attention to yourself from anybody nearby.

How to be Safe when Swimming with Currents

Using open water swimming equipment can be a matter of life and death. Tow floats exist to make open water swimming safer. Not only do they make it safer by making you more visible in the water, but they are also essential in emergencies. If you find yourself in a rip current, you can use a tow float to signal for help or to support you to stay afloat in the water. 

Tow floats can also be used to attach other safety equipment to (like whistles and lights), making you more visible in the water. You could also use a waterproof phone case to bring your smartphone with you on your swim. This gives you the information and the ability to phone for help and provide rescuers with your location.

Although these safety items are essential, they aren’t the only things you can do to be safe from rip currents when open water swimming. It sounds simple, but always assess the water before getting in for your swim. Identify any rip currents and avoid these areas. Even once you’re in the water, keep an eye out for any areas of water without breaking waves as these could be rip currents.

Another way to stay safe is to always swim at a lifeguarded beach. On these beaches there will be signs and flags to indicate where it is safe for you to swim. For example, swimming between the red and yellow flags. Swimming off these beaches also means that help is quickly available if you find yourself struggling in a rip current.

Whether you decide to swim on lifeguarded beaches or not, it’s useful to bring someone with you to spot you from shore. This person will be able to quickly notice and get help for you if you get into trouble in a rip current. If you do get into trouble in the water, your spotter may be tempted to enter the water to help you. However, this will just cause both of you to be struggling in the rip current. Instead, your spotter should stay on land, call for help and shout out to you with instructions on how to stay calm and escape the rip current.

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