With the school holiday upon us, make sure you know how to spot a rip current. Photo: NSRI
With the festive season well underway, many of us will be heading to the beach to bask in the sun and to swim in the sea.
And while this is a mostly fun and safe way of making the most of the warm weather, there are some potential dangers to be aware of, some of which are more difficult to spot than others.
Amongst these dangers are rip currents, which often go unnoticed by swimmers until it’s too late.
WHAT IS A RIP CURRENT?
According to the NSRI rip currents are able to develop where there are breaking waves. Bigger waves produce stronger currents, and these “rivers” of current are produced by water moving from the beach back out to sea.
“They happen all the time at many beaches and are the biggest danger that visitors face in the water. Often rip currents move slowly enough to barely be detected. But given the right circumstances of waves and beach profile, they can develop into currents moving at speeds of up to 2 metres per second – faster than any of us can swim.
“Ranging in width from just a few meters to a hundred meters, they pull to just behind where the waves form and then lose their power. A rip current is not the same as a riptide which is formed as the tide ebbs and flows through a narrow opening such as an estuary. The Knysna Heads is a great example of where you will find extremely dangerous rip tides,” the NSRI said.
HOW TO SPOT A RIP CURRENT:
As with all risks, avoiding rip currents altogether is the safest strategy.
To do this, swim at a beach where lifeguards are on duty and swim between their flags.
Although an untrained eye may struggle to see rip currents, stronger rip currents give telltale signs.
With patience and careful observation it is not hard to see that water in a channel or ‘river’ between breaking waves is moving away from the beach.
The current may not flow straight out from the beach. It may flow at an angle or have a bend or two in it before it gets to the backline where waves are forming.
This is what you should look out for:
Water through a surf zone that is a different color from the surrounding water
A change in the incoming pattern of waves (often, the waves are not breaking in a rip channel).
seaweed, sand ‘clouds’ or debris moving out to the backline where waves are forming through the surf zone
Turbulent or choppy water in the surf zone in a channel or river-like shape flowing away from the beach
The best resource to help you avoid rip currents is lifeguards.
Swim only where lifeguards are on duty, and if they are not on duty, do not swim.
WHAT TO DO IF YOU ARE CAUGHT IN RIP CURRENT
If you are caught in a rip current the most important thing to remember is: Do not panic.
Stay calm and force yourself to relax. You are not going to win a fight with the ocean.
Swim slowly and conservatively out of the current or relax and let it carry you out past the breakers until it slacks.
Take note from looking at the beach of the direction that the current is pulling you, think of it like a river and remember to get out of a river you would swim to the river bank. This means that in a rip current you should swim at 90 degrees to the direction that you are being pulled and then use the waves to help you get back to the beach.
Rip currents are not an “undertow.’ A rip current will not pull you under the water. So long as you can float, you will be safe until you can escape the current, by swimming to the side (out of it) and then back to the beach. Be sure to maintain a slow and relaxed pace until you reach the shore or assistance arrives.