Rip Currents and Rip Tides

A picture of a rip tide

Rip Currents and Rip Tides

Estimated reading time: 6 minutes

What are Rip Currents and Rip Tides? What are their differences and what to do if you are caught in either of them.

Rip currents and tidal rips are both dangerous phenomena that can catastrophically ruin an otherwise lovely day at the seaside! Despite having a similar name, rip tides and rip currents are rather distinct. Here’s the difference:

Rip Current

Nature: A rip current is a strong, localized, and narrow current of water which moves directly away from the shore, cutting through the lines of breaking waves. Particularly dangerous because of the lack of waves, enjoyment seekers often mistakenly believe that this is a safer place to enter the water, they are of course wrong!

Cause: They are typically caused by the shape and gradient of the seabed, which channels water being pushed ashore by waves back out to sea in a narrow stream.

Appearance: Rip currents can be identified by a gap in breaking waves, a channel of churning, choppy water, a difference in water colour (often darker, due to the deeper water channel), a line of foam, seaweed, or debris moving steadily seaward, or a break in the incoming wave pattern.

Duration & Size: Rip currents can form on any beach or shoreline with breaking waves. They can be as narrow as 3 metres in width or more than 15 metres wide. They might flow for just a few minutes, or they can persist for several hours.

Safety: If you find yourself caught in a rip current and you are still able to stand, wade back to land rather than trying to swim. If you have a board or inflatable, keep hold of it as it will help you to float. If you are caught in a rip and unable to stand the recommended action is to raise your hand and shout for help, then swim parallel to the shore (not directly against the current as this is often futile and will only cause to exhaust you) until out of the rip currents pull, and then swim at an angle away from the current and towards the shore.

Rip Currents and Rip Tides - a diagram of a Rip Current and how to escape it

Rip Tide:

A tidal rip, often just referred to as a “rip” or mistakenly called a “rip tide,” is a strong, turbulent flow of water caused by the meeting of conflicting currents or by a current meeting the wind. They can also be caused by tidal movements, especially in areas where large tidal ranges exist and where the movement of water is constricted.

Here’s where and why tidal rips often occur:

Estuaries and Inlets: When tides rise and fall, water has to move in and out of bays and harbours. In narrow inlets or estuaries, the water’s movement can become especially rapid and turbulent, creating rips.

Channels between Islands: In areas with clusters of islands or sandbars, channels can form where water rushes in and out with tidal movements, leading to strong currents and rips.

Reefs or Sandbanks: When tidal waters move over underwater obstacles like reefs, shoals, or sandbanks, they can be forced upwards and become turbulent. This turbulence can lead to the formation of rips.

Points or Headlands: In coastal areas where there’s a pronounced change in the direction of the shoreline, such as around a point or headland, water can be funnelled and may create rips.

Confluence of currents: When two currents meet, especially if they’re moving in different or opposing directions, they can cause turbulent water and rips.

To identify a tidal rip:

  • Look for areas of choppy, turbulent water, especially in places where the surrounding water appears calmer.
  • Water in rips might be discoloured due to churned up sand and debris.
  • Floating debris, foam, or seaweed might appear to be moving against the general flow of water.

It’s worth noting that the term “rip tide” is commonly, though mistakenly, used to refer to rip currents. This is an error in terminology, and it’s important for safety reasons to know the difference between the two. One thing that both Tidal Rips and Rip Currents have in common is the safety advice. If you can stand, wade out of the rip tide, do not try to swim. If you have a board, boat or other floatation device keep hold of it as it will help you to stay afloat if your legs are taken out or if you are swept out further to sea. Don not try to move directly against the rip, even if wading, move horizontally out of the rip and only then angle yourself diagonally towards the shore. Always try to alert others to your peril.

How to help others caught in a rip tide or rip current.

If you see someone caught in a rip tide or current, it’s important to resist the urge to jump in and try to rescue them yourself. This can put both you and the person in danger. Instead, alert a lifeguard or call for emergency services immediately. If there is no lifeguard on duty, try to throw them a flotation device or rope to help them stay afloat until help arrives. Try to get them to swim or pull them (if you have managed to get a rope to them) horizontally or diagonally across the tide or current rather than coming straight back in. Once out of the pull stream, then you can pull or encourage them to swim directly to shore. Remember, rips are a serious threat and should always be taken seriously.

Tips for staying safe at the beach.

When visiting the beach, it’s important to be aware of the potential dangers, including rip tides and rip currents. Always swim near a lifeguard and follow their instructions. If there is no lifeguard on duty, make sure to swim with a buddy and stay within your abilities. Avoid swimming in areas with strong currents or waves, and never swim alone at night. It’s also important to stay hydrated and protect your skin from the sun with sunscreen and protective clothing.

Finally, if you spot someone in difficulty even if you cannot see what is causing the issue, do not hesitate to call 999 and ask for the Coastguard.

Rip Currents and Rip Tides

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