What is a rip current?
Rip currents are channelized currents of water flowing away from shore
at surf beaches. They typically extend from near the shoreline,
through the surf zone and past the line of breaking waves. (The surf
zone is the area between the high tide level on the beach to the
seaward side of breaking waves.)
Do rip currents pull people underwater?
No. A rip current is a horizontal flow of water moving in the offshore
direction. Rip currents do not pull people under the water–-they carry
people away from the shore.
Is a rip current the same as an undertow?
-No! The rip current is typically the strongest about a foot off of
the bottom, which can cause you to be knocked over. This could make
it feel like something
Why do some people use terms like runouts and rip tides when you are
calling them rip currents?
-These terms were likely used for many years in local areas. The
National Weather Service, Sea Grant, and the USLA are working together
to use consistent terminology to provide a clear rip current safety
message to the public.
What happens to people caught in a rip current?
People get in trouble when they are moved so far offshore that they
are unable to get back to the beach. This may be due to any
combination of fear, panic, exhaustion, or lack of swimming skills.
How do rip currents form?
Rip currents are formed when waves break near the shoreline, piling up
water between the breaking waves and the beach. One of the ways that
this water returns to sea is to form a rip current, a narrow jet of
water moving swiftly offshore, roughly perpendicular to the shoreline.
Where should I look for rip currents?
Rip currents can be found on many surf beaches every day. Rip currents
most typically form at low spots or breaks in sandbars, and also near
structures such as groins, jetties and piers. Rip currents can occur
at any beach with breaking waves, including the Great Lakes.
How big are rip currents?
Rip currents can be as narrow as 10 or 20 feet in width but some can
be as much as ten times wider. The length of the rip current also
varies. Rip currents begin to slow down as they move offshore, beyond
the breaking waves, but sometimes extend for hundreds of feet beyond
the surf zone.
How fast are rip currents?
Rip current speeds can vary. Sometimes they are too slow to be
considered dangerous. However, under certain wave, tide and beach
shape conditions the speeds can quickly become dangerous. Rip currents
have been measured to exceed 5 mph, slower than you can run but faster
than you or even an Olympic swimmer can swim. In some cases they have
been measured as fast as 8 feet per second. This is faster than the
speed at which an Olympic swimmer can swim a 50-meter sprint.
- Under most tide and sea conditions rip currents are relatively slow.
However, under certain wave, tide, and beach profile conditions the
speeds can quickly increase to become dangerous to anyone entering the
surf. The strength and speed of a rip current will likely increase as
wave height and wave period increase.
How can I identify a rip current?
Signs that a rip current is present are very subtle and difficult for
the average beachgoer to identify. Look for differences in the water
color, water motion, incoming wave shape or breaking point compared to
adjacent conditions. Look for any of these clues:
- a channel of churning, choppy water
- an area having a notable difference in water color
- a line of foam, seaweed, or debris moving steadily seaward
- a break in the incoming wave pattern
- One, all or none the clues may be visible.
Are all rip currents dangerous?
Rip currents are present on many beaches every day of the year, but
they are usually too slow to be dangerous to beachgoers. However,
under certain wave, tide and beach shape conditions they can increase
to dangerous speeds.
Information provided by NOAA