How to escape a rip current, undertow or riptide

This story was originally published on OFFGRID. Words by Patrick McCarthy.

Human history has been a battle to overcome natural dangers, and we’ve come a long way in that regard. A few generations ago, we had a much more limited understanding of the dangers found in nature — hurricanes, volcanoes, earthquakes and so on.

Today, modern technology, engineering and early warning systems have helped us understand these dangers and be more prepared to deal with them. Nevertheless, some harmful misconceptions still remain.

Multiple rip currents in Tunquen, Chile. Photo: Courtesy of Cecilia and Randy Lascody/NOAA

You’ve probably heard of a dangerous ocean phenomenon referred to as a riptide or undertow, but neither of these terms is technically correct. This powerful force is actually called a rip current; it’s not a tide, and undertow is a completely different phenomenon.

Rip currents pose a serious threat to anyone swimming in the ocean near breaking waves, especially young, weak or tired swimmers. In the first few months of 2017, the National Weather Service has already recorded 31 surf-zone fatalities in the U.S.; more than half were a direct result of rip currents.

Rip current in Florida after Hurricane Jeanne. Photo: Courtesy of Dennis Decker, WCM, NWS Melbourne, Florida

Aside from the confusion over these names, there’s also some confusion over how rip currents actually endanger swimmers. Due to the undertow misnomer, it’s often believed that rip currents drag swimmers down below the surface, but this is untrue.

Rips actually pull swimmers out away from the shore and beyond the surf zone. Many uninformed individuals react to this by trying to fight the current and swim back to shore, but fighting the strong current only exhausts them further, making drowning a serious risk.

A diagram from the National Weather Service shows how to escape a rip current. Image: Courtesy of the National Weather Service

So what should you do if you’re caught in a rip current? Swim parallel to the shore, out of the path of the current. Once you’re out of the current, you can swim back in to shore. Most rip currents are 50 to 100 feet wide, so you shouldn’t have to swim too far to escape its pull.

It’s also wise to know how to identify rip currents before you enter the water. Look for a channel of smooth surface water where waves appear lower and whitecaps are less prominent. If you see one, that may be a rip, so you should try to avoid it. Check out the video below from NOAA’s National Ocean Service channel on YouTube:

Keep these tips in mind as you swim this summer, and share them with your friends and family. As we glean a better understanding of this natural force, we can prepare ourselves to avoid its danger. For more documentation on this and other oceanic dangers, visit ripcurrents.noaa.gov.

More from OFFGRID

Pemmican: The original protein bar

Quiz: Identifying poison ivy, oak, and sumac