Rip Currents, Riptides and How to Keep Yourself Safe from Them

You can’t stop the waves, but you can learn to surf.

    –Jon Kabat-Zinn

A roaring, unpredictable expanse of water with the unknown tucked away into its depths. Such is the poetic pull of the ocean that it scares you, but simultaneously draws you in.

If beaches are your ideal vacation spot, this article is for you.

We’re sure that as many things there are that you love about the sea, there are some things that intimidate you just as much.

Whether it is megalohydrothalassophobia (fear of large underwater sea creatures and objects), or Jaws-induced galeophobia (fear of sharks), oceans and seas have all the makings of a horror-fest.

One such terrorizing phenomenon is ocean currents. Whether it is terrifying maelstroms and whirlpools, or dangerous ocean currents like rip currents, riptides, and undertows, most beaches and coastal regions experience these. 

A scientific review of data provided to the United States Lifesaving Association found that there are over 100 deaths each year in the U.S. alone attributed to rip currents. Rip currents also account for over 80% of rescues performed by surf beach lifeguards. 

So, how do you keep yourself safe from them? Keep reading.

Riptides, Rip Currents, and Undertows

First and foremost, you need to know the difference between ocean currents. The terms riptide, rip current, and undertow are used interchangeably, but they’re not the same thing. Here’s a simple explanation for each:

• Riptides

A riptide, often called a tidal jet by coastal engineers, isn’t actually a tide at all. Tides are caused by the pull of the moon and sun, as we all learned in middle school science.

A riptide is a local current. It is a strong current that is caused by the tidal flow pulling water along a barrier beach. Riptides occur in areas with inlets, such as estuaries and lagoons.

• Rip Currents

A rip current, often called a rip, is a strong, localized, narrow current of water that occurs near beaches with breaking waves. They are very common and not a freak occurrence, contrary to popular belief.

Rip currents are shrouded in myths. The myth that being caught in a rip will sweep you out to sea forever is absolutely untrue. While rips are one of the main beach hazards, all you need to do is stay calm and keep your wits about you if you ever find yourself swept up in one. Instead of swimming against the current, swim with it and a diffusing wave break will eventually push you back to shore.

However, do beware of rips during storm season, as they can get life-threatening.

• Undertows

That myth you heard about rips pulling you under? The real culprit for that is undertows. Rips are surface waves, so they rarely ever pull a swimmer under.

A broken wave pushes water up the beach, while gravity pulls the water back down the beach as a backwash. When this backwash breaks over a surfer or swimmer’s head, they feel as if they are being sucked underwater. This is essentially what an undertow is. 

While it might induce panic and feel scary, an undertow will only ever pull you under for a short while, and never too far away from shore.

But, undertows can be dangerous for novice swimmers or little kids and hence, should be looked out for. 

How to Keep Yourself Safe on the Beach

While almost everyone is familiar with the general rules of safety to be followed on the shore, there are some MUST-KNOW rules of thumb you should be familiar with about ocean currents.

1. Know Before You Go

A very simple but often-ignored rule. If you are visiting a beach unfamiliar to you, gather as much info as you can beforehand.

Check for high tide and low tide timings on the day of your visit, and other beach conditions as well. 

If you’re visiting the beach of an unfamiliar country or region, be sure to scour the local news for recent mishaps on the beach. This isn’t to scare you, but so that you’re aware of what to be extra careful of.

2. Curious About Currents

The best way to be safe from rips or undertows is to never get caught in one. And how do you ensure that? By arming yourself with knowledge about them.

For starters, make sure that you can identify what rips or undertows look like, so you can keep a safe distance from them.

On the off chance that you get caught in a rip, do not panic. And don’t swim against the current towards the shore. Instead, swim parallel to the shoreline and you will find yourself out of the rip soon enough. This is because while rip currents can be strong, they aren’t very wide. 

If you are caught in an undertow, hold your breath in until you feel your body being pushed to the surface, which will be soon enough.

In either case, the best advice is to not fight the water and the current; instead work in tandem with them until you are safely back on the beach.

3. Safety First, Second, and Third

You and your party’s safety should be at the forefront of your mind at all times near any body of water.

Try to swim near where the lifeguards are at all times. Also, stay away from areas on the beach where the waves aren’t breaking, and discolored water is being pulled away from shore rather than pushed towards it. This is the biggest marker of rip currents.

If you see someone caught in a rip, do not jump in to help them, especially if you aren’t an expert swimmer yourself. Instead, call for help. The same goes for if you find yourself caught in a current and unable to escape. Stay calm and wave for help.

If you are not too confident in your swimming abilities, stick to the beach and shallows, and don’t wade far from shore

Ultimately, the key is to not panic and keep your wits about you. And no matter how prolific of a swimmer you are, remember that the ocean is unpredictable, and can turn the tide on you without a moment’s notice!

Insurance is Essential

When planning a beach vacation, a crucial part of that planning is to purchase travel insurance or travel medical insurance beforehand.

When soaking up the sun in another country, you likely won’t have financial protection from your domestic health insurance if you get injured or sick. Private hospitals in tropical island locations can be either extremely expensive, or underequipped to handle every sort of emergency, meaning emergency medical evacuation could be required. Either option is prohibitively expensive, and you’ll have to pay the whole bill yourself if you don’t have proper insurance in place.

Visit Insubuy to compare a variety of plans in order to see which one fits you best. For a beach vacation, remember to select a plan that can provide coverage for any water sports you plan to participate in. Once you’ve found the right plan for you, all it takes is a click to purchase it from the Insubuy website.

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