Q&A on Rip Currents

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

the water was pulling you.

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