Swimmers getting caught in rip currents make up the majority of lifeguard rescues. These tips from Florida Sea Grant and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's National Weather Service (NWS) can help you know what to do if you encounter a rip current.
Rip currents are formed when water flows away from the shore in a channeled current. They may form in a break in a sandbar near the shore, or where the current is diverted by a pier or jetty.
From the shore, you can look for these clues in the water:
- A channel of choppy water.
- A difference in water color.
- A line of foam, seaweed, or debris moving out to sea.
- A break in incoming wave patterns.
Rip currents pull people away from shore, not under the water. Rip currents are not "undertows" or "rip tides."
If you get caught in a rip current, don't panic! Stay calm and do not fight the current.
Escape the current by swimming across it--parallel to shore--until you are out of the current. When you get out of it, swim back to the shore at an angle away from the current.
If you can't break out of the current, float or tread water until the current weakens. Then swim back to shore at an angle away from the rip current.
Rip currents are powerful enough to pull even experienced swimmers away from the shore. Do not try to swim straight back to the shore against the current.
Rescue in a Rip Current
Many people have harmed themselves trying to rescue rip current victims, so follow these steps to help someone stuck in a rip current.
Get help from a lifeguard. If a lifeguard is not present, yell instructions to the swimmer from the shore and call 9-1-1.
If you are a swimmer caught in a rip current and need help, draw attention to yourself--face the shore and call or wave for help.
You can swim safely this summer by keeping in mind some simple rules.
- Do not overestimate your swimming abilities. Be cautious at all times.
- Never swim alone.
- Swim near a lifeguard for maximum safety.
- Obey all instructions and warnings from lifeguards and signs.
- If in doubt, don't go out!
This condensed version of our safety tips can help you remember what to do if you are caught in a rip current.
Adapted and excerpted from:
"Rip Currents" (964KB pdf), Florida Sea Grant (accessed 5/2012).