Rip currents, which are present to some degree at every beach in the world where there is wave action, are the experienced surfers best friend, allowing him to quickly gain his position out back with minimal effort. However, rips are an extreme danger to the unwary and, although posing the greatest hazard to swimmers, need to be understood by all who intend to use the ocean as a playground, including surfers.
PHOTO CREDIT - ROBYNE JAY
Obviously all the water that is pushed towards the shore must flow back out again but in neither direction does this do so in regular or even patterns. Water will find the quickest route to flow back out to sea and thus low lying, narrow channels of high velocity water known as rips develop, flowing from the shoreline and out to sea. The speed of water-flow in a rip channel will vary considerably, in some cases so that it is barely discernible while in the most ferocious of rips the water can race at 8 feet per second.
The mechanics of how rips develop are extremely complex and have been the subject of research for over 75 years. Factors include combinations of wave action, swell, wind, tide and bathymetry (the shape of the near beach ocean floor) and it has been suggested by academics that there may be as many as 21 different ways in which a rip can develop.
The most commonly occurring rips develop between sandbars but splits in reef will also cause them and man-made structures such as piers, jetties and groynes will often be the site of rips. These are usually caused by waves breaking at an angle onto the beach resulting in longshore current (along the beach) which is then deflected back out to sea as it hits the obstacle.
Strangely, the sites of rips can often appear to be the calmest area of ocean. As swell approaches a shore it will break as waves over the sandbars but not in the deeper channels. The water level over the bars increases (known as set-up) and then surges back out to sea through the deeper channel once it has broken on the shore. This fast flow seawards, where often the greatest force of the rip is at the surface, further suppresses any wave action in that site. Looking for areas without waves is one easy way to spot where rips are situated.
PHOTO CREDIT DAILY ORNELLAS
Seen from the air rips have a very distinctive appearance. Where there is wave action the rip presents itself as a strip of flat water which then blossoms out in a circular pattern out to sea. Almost like a large flower connected by a long, thin stalk to the shore. The blossoming out, which signifies the dissipating strength of the fast water, can occur close to the shore, just beyond the breaking waves or several hundred feet out. The width of the channel flowing seaward from the shore can be very narrow or up to 50 yards wide.
Unless there is some fixed natural occurrence such as a channel in a reef or some permanent man-made structure, rips move constantly and may occur in one spot for only a few hours depending on other factors. Sometimes they may be present for weeks before moving. Although rips are not actually caused by tides, a rip's velocity may be affected by them and their risk is generally greater at low tide. Also,rips are often stronger during times of high swell or rough conditions.
PHOTO CREDIT ROEBOT
What to do if you are caught in a rip
Being caught in a rip for the first time can be terrifying. No matter how hard you swim or paddle you watch the shore line receding further and further and exhaustion can quickly follow. This is why most drownings occur – the combination of panic and exhaustion fighting pointlessly against the current. The greatest tragedy of these types of drownings is that had the victim understood what was happening, safety and rescue were but a few feet away in a certain direction.
It is completely pointless trying to head directly for shore and out swim a rip. There will come a point where the rip dissipates and no longer pushes you seaward. If you are a strong swimmer you may choose to wait until this happens but be aware you could find yourself a long way from the shore. The best action is to try and get out the side of the rip by swimming or paddling parallel to the shore. When you feel the rip has released its grip you can then start swimming for the beach, at an angle away from the rip. Head for areas of breaking waves which will also help push you in shore-wards if you are getting tired. Remember, as a surfer, you have an enormous flotation aid strapped to your ankle and unless you lose your board or give in to panic there is no real danger.
Annually, thousands of people die in beach drownings globally and some researchers estimate that as many as 80% of these deaths are due to rip currents. Tragically, the majority of victims could have saved themselves if they had understood the mechanics of a rip.
It is often difficult for the untrained eye to spot the location of a rip from the beach but eventually it will become second nature. Look for
- variations in water colour
- variations in breaking wave patterns - areas of rips are often free of proper waves
- odd or irregular motions such as waves going sideways
- areas of choppy or churning water
- areas with sea debris such as seaweed or foam which will be moving out to sea
Lifeguards are trained to identify rips and will tell you where they are located if the beach has a lifeguard presence. If you really have no idea what to look for then it can be helpful to have some-one in the know point one out for you, whether you are intending to surf there or not, so that you know what to look for next time.
It is as well to be aware that the constantly mobile and changing nature of rips could see you entering your surf session in a rip-free zone but as the tide turns or conditions change a rip may be created. Therefore knowing what to do if you get caught in a rip is crucial even if you have learned to spot them and avoid them on entering the water.
As mentioned earlier, many competent surfers actually place themselves purposefully in a rip to paddle out but you will need to become an accomplished waterman and have spent many hours in the water before you can consider this as an option.