Safety Advice Series: Rip Currents (Part 1)

There are many things that Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps can do. He can swim a 100-meter butterfly in less than 50 seconds (49.82, to be precise). He can cheerfully inhale 10,000 calories of straight carbs in a single day and not gain an ounce of fat. But there is one thing that even Mr. Phelps probably cannot do: he could not swim his way to the shore to escape a rip current.

Now, I’m not telling you this to undermine the incredible swimming prowess of Michael Phelps. Heck, my best move in the water is the cannonball. What I’m trying to say is not that Michael Phelps is a weakling, but that a rip current really is that strong. If Phelps found himself trapped in one, and tried to swim straight to shore, there is a high chance that he’d be worn out before he got far. And he’s got 28 Olympic medals.

There are a lot of dangerous misconceptions about rip currents. Due to this unfortunate amount of misinformation, 100 people will die this year from getting trapped in one. Please, please, please do not become a statistic on our beautiful Fort Lauderdale beaches. Instead, follow this advice and you may wind up saving your own life, or the life of somebody you love.

What is a rip current?

A rip current is a type of current that runs perpendicular to the shore. These channels can be anywhere from 50 feet in length to 200 feet or greater in length. What makes them so terrifying – other than their gaping maw of death – is the fact that they are absolutely subtle as heck. Other than the powerful current churning just below the surface of the water, they can be very hard to spot with an untrained eye.

What isn’t a rip current?

Some people have heard rip currents be called “rip tides”. They are not tides at all. They’re not controlled by the gravity of the moon, they do not rise and fall, and they do not pass GO or collect $200.

They are also not “undertows”, either. One prevailing notion about rip currents is that they pull you under, into the murky depths below. (Why yes, that is a terrifying thought and also yes, I know what I’m going to have a nightmare about tonight.) However, it couldn’t be further from the truth. Rip currents don’t pull you under; they wear you out. Fatalities occur because the swimmer simply can’t go any further.

What causes rip currents?

Some people believe that rip currents occur in certain weather patterns. The fact is, a rip current can happen on a sunny day. They can happen on stormy days. They can occur when it’s 72° and cloudy. In other words, rip currents aren’t dictated by weather conditions. Instead, they are controlled by water conditions.

While rip currents can form on any type of beach (shallow water, deep water, anywhere waves can form), they do have a certain preference for oceans that have certain features in them, like jetties or piers. They form when surface water is pushed toward the shore. This leads to a slight rise in sea level. The water needs to go somewhere, and it’s going to get there as easily as possible. It rushes back in along the surface of the water and voila – a rip current has been born.

Now that we’ve properly terrified you about rip currents, we’re just going to end this article right here. Good luck in the future!

Just kidding.

Please check out Part 2, Safety Advice Series: Rip Currents. In the upcoming segment, we will teach you how to not only spot a rip current, but also how to survive one.