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What is a rip current?

A rip current is a narrow, fast moving belt of water travelling away from shore. It forms as waves travel from deep to shallow water, breaking parallel near the shoreline that then form a current flowing rapidly back out, away from the shore.

A rip current is not an undertow. It is a horizontal current that can pull a person away from the shore. It does not pull people under the water.

Rip currents mostly form at low spots or breaks in sandbars, and also near structures such as groins, jetties and piers. They can be very narrow or extend to hundreds of metres. The seaward pull of rip currents varies from ending just beyond the line of breaking waves to hundreds of metres offshore.

Potential risks to swimmers

While useful to experienced and knowledgeable water users as a quick pathway beyond breaking waves, there are some serious risks associated with rip currents.

A rip current can quickly pull people along shallow water into deeper water. When pulled in by a rip current, the instinct is to swim back, against the current. Depending on the strength of the current, this might cause exhaustion

How to identify rip currents

The best way to prevent getting pulled in by a rip current is by observing the movement of the water before setting out. Here are some of the visual characteristics of rip currents:

  • A noticeable break in the pattern of the waves; flat part vs. lines of breaking waves on either side of a rip current.
  • Foamy river-like formation due to the current carrying foam from the surf to open water.
  • Foam or debris moving out on the water instead of being pushed towards the shore.

How to swim out of a rip current

It is always best to prevent being pulled in by a rip current by looking at the waves before heading into the water. However, should you get caught in a rip current, there is a way to swim out of the current.

Think of a rip current as a conveyor belt, or treadmill, carrying you away from the shore. Swimming against the current might not get you any closer to the shore. Instead, try the following:

  1. Get out of the rip by swimming across the current, parallel to the shore, in either direction.
  2. Once out of the rip, swim back to shore in areas where you see objects, including swimmers, being pushed towards the shore, or signal for help.