Rip Current Safety

What to Look For and What to Do

Keep your family safe by teaching them about rip current safety. The Outer Banks is a wonderful place to vacation, but like any other large body of water vacation spot with breaking waves, such as oceans and larger lakes, like the Great Lakes, rip tides can be a safety concern. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has put an excellent overview together on safety procedures. They are also known as rip tides and undertow, but NOAA has asked that we only use the term "rip currents" so as not to dilute the education process.

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They form as a result of waves travelling from deep to shallow water and breaking near shore. When waves break strongly in one area and weakly in another, a circulation can form from the water rushing back to the ocean. Their speed are generally 1-2 feet per second, but have been clocked at up to eight feet per second.

They cause about 100 deaths per year in the U.S., more than any other natural hazard except floods and heat. Over 80% of rescues, about 18,000, by beach lifeguards are due to them. So what can you do to protect your family?

First is to identify them so as to avoid them. Look for the following indications:

  • A channel of churning choppy water

  • An area having a notable difference in water color. I have seen this in very sandy water in a channel heading back towards the ocean

  • A line of foam, debris, or seaweed heading steadily out towards the ocean

  • A break in the incoming wave patterns. You may also notice "outgoing" waves slamming into "incoming waves".

Some, one, or none of these things are likely to indicate their presence. In addition, when at the beach, avoid swimming within 100 feet of piers and jetties, as these structures are natural areas for rip tides to occur because they naturally break up incoming waves. In addition, NOAA recommends learning how to swim in the surf, versus swimming in a pool or lake, as the affects of the tide is quite different. Also, always try to swim on a beach with a lifeguard, or at minimum, swim with someone else. The National Weather Service, in addition to posting the daily weather report, will also post a rip current warning. You can find this information on our News and Weather page by referring to the weather box near the top of the page.

Escaping a Rip Current

Finally, what do you do if you are caught in a rip tide? To dispel a myth, they do not pull you under the water, but rather, pull you out to sea. One great analogy that I read is to think of it as a never ending treadmill. The only way off of the treadmill is to step to the side of the treadmill. Hence, the key to surviving it is to swim horizontal to the shore, so as to swim out of the pull. NOAA provides the following six things to do if you are caught in a rip tide:

  • Remain calm to conserve energy and think clearly.

  • Never fight against the current.

  • Think of it as a treadmill that cannot be turned off, which you need to step to the side of.

  • Swim out of the current in the direction following the shoreline. When out of the current, swim at an angle, away from the current, towards shore.

  • If you are unable to swim out of the rip current, float or calmly tread water. When out of the current, swim towards shore.

  • If you are still unable to reach shore, draw attention to yourself by waving your arms and yelling for help.

If you see someone in trouble, don’t become a victim too, but do:

  • Get help from the lifeguard.

  • If a lifeguard is not available, call 911.

  • Throw the rip current victim something that floats: a lifejacket, cooler or an inflatable ball, etc.

  • Yell instructions on how to escape.

Most rip currents are generally 30 to 100 feet wide, so help the victim identify where safety is.

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