How to Identify Rips at the Beach

Author: Tahlia Maynard   Date Posted:29 October 2016 

Successfully identifying and averting a rip isn’t all that difficult; all you need is a little information and common sense.

Rip currents, rip tides, or rips are nasty jets of water that can transform your lazy camping afternoon at the beach into an unpleasant experience, if not much worse. Rips specialise in pulling you away from the shore and into the ocean, at speeds in the range of 3 metres per second. The trouble with rips is that they occur exactly where and when you wouldn’t expect them to, in the shallows closest to the beach, on a tranquil day when the water seems particularly calm. 

Understanding rips

Knowing the warning signs can certainly serve you well, but in order to understand them completely, you would need to understand how rip currents are formed. Let’s picture a beach on a regular day with nothing unusual going on. Waves will be hitting the sand at an angle, and retreating in the same fashion, thereby generating the regular push and pull that all beachgoers are familiar with.

But sometimes, waves hit the coast perpendicularly, and that’s what spells trouble. Some of the water will retreat back out to sea from under the surface of the current, but a major volume will split sideways and travel along the shore, creating what is known as a ‘longshore current’. When two of these currents collide, they will cause the water to flow back to sea at a breakneck speed. And that is precisely what a rip current is.

Common indicators of rips at the beach

The first and most common indicator of a rip current is a visible gap between waves. It is natural to assume that the water in such a gap will be calmer than the surrounding waves, but it could very well be a rip, and can pull an inexperienced swimmer much further into the sea than they can afford to be.

Another common sign of a rip near the shore is dark coloured water. Strong currents often pick up and carry sand and sediments, gradually depositing them at the shore. This causes the water to appear darker than it does further away. On a similar note, you can also look out for debris that’s laid out in a linear fashion and gradually moving towards the sea.

If there are sandbars, piers or jetties erected at the beach you’re visiting, the risks of rip currents can be pretty high. These structures can catch approaching longshore waves and cause them to break and move back to the sea. Be alert; sandbars can also be submerged and not immediately visible.

Other considerations

Even storms hundreds of kilometres away can disturb the ocean enough to cause rips at the beach you’re visiting. Luckily, our surf livesavers are at work to monitor these risks for us. Keep up with weather updates to know about the risks well in advance and keep your kids away from the water if the chances of rips are on the higher side. You can also look out for warning flags erected at the beach, informing tourists that it may not be particularly safe on a given day.

Always heed the warnings issued by the lifesavers and don’t go swimming outside the flags. A particularly strong rip current can surprise even experienced swimmers and you don’t want help to be too far away at that point.

Family beach holidays should be all about fun. Stay informed, stay alert, and stay safe during your visit, and upon spotting (or hearing about) possible rips, stay on the sand. There’s a lot of fun to be had on dry land as well!