Caught out: rip currents

By LeÏla Berney 3 December 2015
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Although we are a nation of ocean-lovers, an alarming number of Australians can’t spot a rip current, let alone escape one.

YOUR BREATHING IS ragged and your muscles burn as you struggle against the strong flow of water. You’ve been swimming for what feels like hours, but the harder you kick the further away the beach seems to be. You try to yell for help but your mouth fills with water. You’re caught in a rip and nobody is around to save you. 

“I was terrified. I absolutely thought I was going to die,” says Alison Vincent, a 45-year-old mother of three who escaped drowning after being caught in a rip current at Palm Beach when she was 18. Growing up in Windsor, 60km west of Sydney, Alison wasn’t accustomed to the ocean. She and a friend decided to go swimming at sunset, while the beach was unpatrolled and deserted.

“Rip currents are the greatest risk to people on the Australian coastline,” says Anthony Bradstreet, Surf Life Saving Australia’s coastal risk and safety manager. “They’re responsible for at least 21 drownings per year… and more than half of our annual 10,000 rescues. But we anticipate it’s much higher than that.”

Rivers of the sea

So what exactly are they? Dr Robert Brander, a coastal geomorphologist at the University of New South Wales in Sydney, says rips are like “rivers of the sea”. These currents of water are strong and concentrated; they flow from the shoreline to beyond the breakers, returning water brought in by the waves.

“Basically any beach with breaking waves over a wide surf zone will have rips, but as beaches change their morphology with changing wave conditions, there are sometimes more rip channels, sometimes less,” Robert says. 

This makes rips extremely unpredictable; drastic changes in water flow can occur within just 10 minutes. “You really need to be extremely conscious of your position in the surf zone, which is a fairly technical skill,” says Anthony. 

Deceptive calm

A mistake beachgoers make is to look for what they think is ‘safer’ water to swim in – choosing deeper, darker areas where there are no breaking waves or white-water turbulence. In reality, however, that’s where the rip current is. “Another myth is that [rips] take you way out to sea,” says Robert. “Most rips actually flow in large circles and may often return you to shallow water.”

In Alison’s case, her lack of beach-safety awareness nearly proved fatal. “It happened pretty quickly and it became obvious that I was getting pulled out away from the beach,” she says. “Your gut instinct is to get back to shore, and I was swimming and going nowhere.” 

Luckily, Alison’s friend made it back to the beach and soon realised she was in trouble. She ran to a nearby road and flagged down a car; the passer-by rushed into the waves and swam out to Alison, helping her to swim across the current and safely back to shore.

Don’t “exhaust yourself or panic by swimming directly against it”, says Anthony. If you are caught, stay calm, float and raise an arm to attract attention. You can also try to swim parallel to the beach, towards breaking waves.

However, the best thing to do is avoid them completely. Almost all rip drownings occur on unpatrolled beaches, outside of patrol times and flagged areas. Australian surf lifesavers are trained to spot rip currents, assess how dangerous they are and designate safe areas.

“The easiest way for the average beachgoer to avoid rip currents…is to swim between the red and yellow flags,” says Anthony.

Signs of a rip

  • Deeper, darker water.
  • Fewer breaking waves and calmer water.
  • Sometimes sandy-coloured water extending beyond surf zone.
  • Water with different surface texture.
  • Look for persistent gaps between the breaking waves: that’s the rip current.

Rip survival

  • For assistance, stay calm, float and raise an arm to attract attention.
  • As you float, the rip may flow in a circular pattern and return you to an adjacent sandbar.
  • If you’re a strong swimmer, you may escape by swimming parallel to the beach, towards the breaking waves.
  • You should regularly assess your situation. If your response is ineffective, you may need to adopt an alternative, such as floating and attracting attention.

Different types of rip current

Fixed rips 

The most common type, they are confined to deep channels between sandbars, and often persist for days, weeks or months. Size and shape can change but not location. Considered the most dangerous type, they flow quickly and can occur on calm days when waves are small.

Topographic rips 

Another common type, these rip currents are semi-permanent in location because they flow adjacent to physical structures such as headlands. An example is ‘­Backpackers’ Express’ on Sydney’s Bondi Beach, which occurs near the south headland.

Flash rips 

Short-lived and mobile, they occur during messy wave conditions and storms. They can appear and reappear at different locations along the beach and can be narrow, tens of metres wide, and sometimes extend hundreds of metres offshore, on days with very large waves.


This article originally appeared in Australian Geographic Issue #124 (Jan-Feb 2015).