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What are Riptides & How To Identify Them

Posted by Luke Green

If you do engage in watersports like sea kayaking, paddle boarding, surfing or seaside swimming you might have come across the term “RipTide” or you might have even experienced or observed one.

Watersport enthusiasts are not the only people who should be aware of riptides. You might just walk your dog at the beach or go on a coastal family holiday once in a while and are not aware of the dangers that riptides are carrying. Being able to identify a riptide and knowing how to behave whilst you are drawn into one can be a lifesaver for you and others.

What Is A Riptide?

A riptide is a powerful current usually in the form of a narrow channel of fast-moving water which moves directly away from the shore, cutting through incoming waves. Usually, it occurs because wind and breaking waves are pushed to the shore and the excess water arriving at the beach usually flows back which then can cause a rip. 

Riptides can flow as fast as 8 feet per second which makes it impossible to fight them.

How do You Identify A Riptide?

Being in and around the sea, it is very crucial to observe your surroundings, like wind, waves and the weather in general. A riptide usually stands out by a combination of breaking and missing waves. 

In between the breaking waves that move towards the shore riptides create a trench where the current flows into the opposite direction of these incoming waves pulling everything within it out to open waters. In very obvious examples you can even see the current mixing up the sand and carrying it away from the shore or in general the water having a different colour within the trench of the riptide. If in doubt, always follow the instructions of lifeguards and flags. If the beach is not supervised do not risk getting into the water if you are not 100% sure about the situation. 

What To Do If You Get Caught In A Riptide?

Most deaths occur because people try to swim against the current whereas the best tactic involves staying calm, trying to draw attention to yourself from e.g. lifeguards or other people at the beach and just float with the riptide until it releases you.

Another option involves trying to escape the rip tide by swimming parallel to the beach. Do not panic if your first option does not work. Reassess the situation and try the respective other option until you return to shore. If you have anything helping you to float - like a kayak, surfboard or paddle board - use it as an aid but ideally, you will be wearing a life jacket or personal flotation device.

Even a seasoned swimmer can easily get into situations like these, which is why we cannot stress enough the importance of wearing life jackets, PFDs, and buoyancy aids. They may get in the way a bit, but there's nothing you'll wish you had more should you find yourself in an emergency situation. In addition to lifejackets and PFDs for adults and children, you can also get dog buoyancy aids to help keep your pets safe while joining you in the water.

What To Do If Someone Else Is Caught In A Riptide?

If you are in the situation of observing someone getting pulled into a riptide do not jump into the water in an attempt to save them unless you are a trained professional. Depending on how close you are, you can try and throw a safety buoy or anything similar that floats. If you can’t help from your position, inform a lifeguard immediately or call an emergency number.

A death caused by a riptide is preventable with a critical eye and an understanding of the underlying physics. So hopefully you take something away from this blog, stay safe and help others to stay safe as well.