Understanding the basic rip current facts, and how to escape the danger, is one of the important skills for novice snorkelers to learn. The information in this snorkeling blog explains how to identify and avoid a rip current.
First of all, water current rips occur where fast-moving surf water funnels its way back out to sea from the beach. The powerful stream usually travels through deeper channels between sand bars close to the seabed.
Following periods of strong winds and heavy rain, surge, and waves rush in to landmasses, breaking at the shoreline over sand bars.
Having pushed its way up to the beach, all this water must then return back seaward. Hence, it usually flows downwards into deeper surf zone channels beneath the surface.
Rip Currents Facts: Anyone who gets caught in this specific kind of localized narrow current of water – often called undertow – is at risk of drowning.
Tips for Handling Rip Currents
It may be because of inexperience, bravado, or both, but tourists often try to fight the rip. That is why we always provide an in-water guide when we conduct our snorkeling tours in Pattaya, Thailand.
They try swimming against the current after finding themselves shooting out to sea.
A vain attempt to struggle back to shore can often result in panic and exhaustion. Taking in water, near drowning, and unfortunately far too often – death can also occur.
Even non-swimmers paddling in waist deep water are vulnerable to the power of rip channels. Bathers who are unable to swim and without some water flotation device may drown as they get dragged out from shallow water.
Rip Current Facts: Rips are one of the major hazards on the touristy west coast beaches of Phuket and the holiday island of Koh Chang when snorkeling in Thailand. Furthermore, they tend to occur most during the monsoon season from September to November.
Go with the Flow
Try to control the urge to panic. That is a bold statement unless you are an experienced surfer. They use the rip current as an effortless ride back to the take-off zone – the method known as ‘out the back’. Nonetheless, adopting a similar response is a valuable lesson to learn.
Do not fight the drag. Instead try going with the flow calmly treading water through the danger zone. Stay afloat as the rip dissipates in deeper water away from the beach.
If you can tread water, try to float without panicking. Then, raise your hand and signal for help. Waiting for a rescue can help you avoid drowning in a rip channel.
Rip Current Facts: Most rip currents will stretch less than one hundred (100) metres before they fizzle out past the wave breaking zone.
Avoid Swimming Against the Rip
Even if you consider yourself to be a strong swimmer, it is unlikely you will make it to shore before you become dangerously exhausted.
In fact, even an Olympic swimming champion will most likely go backwards while swimming against even a moderate rip current.
Dealing with Waves
Although rip water channels rarely have waves, what should you do if a wave breaks over your head?
The best advice is to take a breath and let the waves crash over your head. Duck down and try to relax while the splash rolls over you and then you can pop back up at the surface after the completion of the wave break.
Swim in a Sideways Direction
One of the countries renowned for huge rip currents is Australia. As a result, surf-lifesavers instruct people who get caught in a rip to swim sideways or parallel to the beach. The theory is that you are unlikely to experience large rips wider than thirty (30) metres across when snorkeling in Australia.
So, you may have a better chance to swim ‘along’ the current (which is running perpendicular to the beach) and then exit the rip further down the shore.
The main caution would be to avoid tiring yourself out by swimming sideways for too long. In this case, floating out to the back and waiting to be rescued might be a better choice.
Recognizing Rip Currents
Many rip currents are very difficult to recognize from the beach or at sea level. Nonetheless, these are a few ways to help you identify some common signs of a rip current:
- Look for sections of water where no waves or fewer waves are breaking.
- The calm channel creates a dangerous trap for inexperienced swimmers.
- Big rips often drag sand off the beach as they go back seaward so look for sandy water channels.
- The surface of the rip is often disturbed and choppy if the wind is blowing in the opposite direction.
Rip Current Facts
Bigger surf means a stronger rip because there is more water to move back out to sea. Rip currents are at their strongest during low tide. The reason is that the water moves through a shallower channel. So, there is a greater quantity of water to move out from the beach.
Typically, there is a rip running along at least one of the headlands at each end of the beach. It can be at both ends if the swell is coming in exactly front-on to the beach – most swells are slightly oblique.
A long stretch of beach (such as at the Phuket snorkeling destinations in Thailand) is likely to have several sandbars separated by channels containing rip currents.
Feeder currents running parallel to the beach close to the sand feed into bigger rip currents. Feeder currents get stronger as they approach the large channel between the sandbars and then turn right angles and head out to sea.
Important Fact About Rip Currents: Local authorities would usually issue a rip current statement when there is a high threat of rip channels due to weather and ocean conditions.