Beware of rip currents

Don’t get pulled in

Rip currents are the leading surf hazard for beachgoers. More than 100 people a year die from rip-current related drownings alone – more than from shark attacks, tornadoes and lightning strikes combined. At least 80 percent of lifeguard rescues are due to rip currents.

(Image credit: NOAA Ocean Today)


Lifeguards rescue victim from rip current.
Rip CurrentsLife guards rescue victim from rip current. (NOAA)

Rip currents are powerful, fast-moving channels of water (up to 8 feet per second) that typically flow from the shoreline to beyond the area where waves break. They can form on any beach or lake shore where waves are breaking, often near sandbars, jetties and piers.

Rip currents are capable of dragging even the strongest of swimmers far away from the shore, causing distress and panic.

Get to know the flow

Would you know a rip current if you saw one? Rip currents are not easily identifiable by most people. Some of the more recognizable characteristics of a rip current include:

  • A choppy channel of water that has a churning motion.
  • A line of sea foam, seaweed or debris that is moving steadily out to sea.
  • A disrupted pattern of incoming waves.
  • Rip currents.
Crowded beach with rip currents.
Crowded beach with rip currents.(Delaware Sea Grant )

Look for rip current educational signs and surf hazard warning flags posted by beach patrols that correspond to specific surf conditions and local rip current activity.

NOAA’s National Weather Service issues regional surf zone forecasts that help local authorities determine an area’s risk for rip currents (low risk, moderate risk and high risk). These risk assessments help lifeguards and law enforcement officials determine whether the water is safe for swimming.

How to avoid becoming a headline

Rip current poster.(NOAA)

Don’t become a statistic. Before you step foot in the water this summer, familiarize yourself with the warning flags for your area and swim only on guarded beaches.

If you should get caught in a rip current, don’t panic. Try to remember a few simple rules:

  • Keep calm. Don't fight the rip current.
  • To get out of the rip current, swim sideways, parallel to the beach. This will get you out of the rip current so you can swim back in with the waves helping you along.
  • When out of the rip current, swim at an angle away from the rip current and toward shore.
  • If you can't escape this way, try to float or calmly tread water. Rip current strength eventually weakens offshore. When it does, swim away from the rip current toward shore.
  • If at any time you are unable to reach the shore, draw attention to yourself: face the shore, wave your arms, and yell for help.

For more tips on how to avoid and survive rip currents, visit NOAA’s Rip Current Awareness Week website. While you’re there, check out cool video footage and aerial photographs, including video animation of a swimmer caught in a rip current, as well as first-person accounts from rip current survivors