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The United States Life Saving Association (USLA) and NOAA have produced an excellent video on rip current.

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Video Transcript

Transcripts for Rip Currents

Peter Davis, United States Lifesaving Association: Your grandma called it “undertow.” Your uncle called it “riptide.” It’s a rip current. Now, we’re on the same page. A rip current is a strong finger-like current that runs offshore—very powerful, extremely dangerous.

Myth About Rip Currents

Carol Davis, Beach Patrol Dispatch, Galveston, TX: It doesn’t take you under; it takes you out. It’s a horizontal current.

Peter Davis: There’s no current that pulls you under at the beach. A rip current pulls you out. It’ll dig up the sand, so it’ll cause a trench or a trough to be there. Even after the rip current is gone, that drop-off can still be pretty pronounced. So, people will step off into it—they’re not ready—next thing you know they’re getting carried offshore. What happens is people get scared or tired or try to fight that current, think they’re not going to make it back in, and that’s when they have problems.

Recognize Rip Currents

Peter Davis: You can recognize a rip current by its foamy, choppy surface. It’ll have sand mixed up in it. There’ll be a little different color than the rest of the water.

Spencer Rogers, Specialist in Coastal Processes, North Carolina Sea Grant: The key is to look for differences along the shoreline. There are differences in the motion of the water, in the color of the water, in the choppiness of the waves as they approach the beach, and the point where they break along the surf zone. In some cases, you may have one of these indicators; in some cases, there may be all of them, and in some cases, none.

Dr. Jamie MacMahan, Center for Applied Coastal Research, Newark, DE: You see a rip current. You see, sort of, no waves really breaking in this area. You walk along—next thing you know, you’re being pulled offshore.

What Is a Rip Current?

Peter Davis: Rip currents are most dangerous when there’s high surf or a lot of current running parallel to shore.

Dr. Jamie MacMahan: Waves, in general, come in groups, and so, when the largest wave occurs, it becomes a stronger flow offshore, and this is a false sense of security because you stand in the rip channel, it’s not pulling and, the next thing you know, you’re being whisked offshore.

Where Are Rip Currents?

Peter Davis: Many times rips occur near structures like piers or jetties. Other times, at beaches with a lot of slope, they’ll pop up out of nowhere.

Jim Eberwine, Marine & Hurricane Program Leader, National Weather Service, Mount Holly, NJ: Now, you ask any lifeguard, he’ll tell you: on any particular day, there are rip currents. So, you’ll have rip currents present. It’s those people—the lifeguards—who know where they are. And then they’ll adjust. In fact, they told us that one day you may be on 55th Street, but then the next day you may have to move down a little bit because the rip current is moving along with that. So, they’re the experts and they give us the information that we need.

How Do Rip Currents Form?

Peter Davis: The combination of wind, waves, and longshore current together can form rip currents. Rip current in a nutshell is a narrow river that runs directly offshore, perpendicular to shore, out to sea.

Joe Snelgrove, Lifeguard: Rip current down there—when the waves come in—all the water that comes in from the waves has to go out somewhere.

Rip Currents Are Dangerous

Peter Davis: Each year, many people lose their lives at sea. They think they’re a match for the ocean; they think they’re stronger. They think they’re tougher. Make no mistake about it, no one is.

Sarah Love, Lifeguard, Rehoboth Beach, DE: Rip current is when it forms kind of like a mushroom cloud. White water goes out and, if you’re stuck in it, you’ll go out with the rip current.

Carol Davis: Rip currents are dangerous. They are the leading surf hazard for all beachgoers.

Peter Davis: They’re particularly dangerous for non-swimmers. They can go faster than an Olympic swimmer can sprint.

Bill Boyle, Ocean Rescue, Miami Beach, FL: See all these people going in where we kept them out all day. And about 18 to 20 people—BAM—gone. All of them.

Sandee LaMotte, Widow: I was at the sink washing some stuff for dinner, and the kids came bursting in the door and they said, “Mom, mom! Daddy’s went in after Ryan. Ryan was stuck, and now nobody can find daddy!” And I just, “What?” And I couldn’t believe it. So, I rushed out the door, and as soon as I got outside, I heard the helicopters, and I saw the crowd of people, because we weren’t that far from the beach, and I knew. So, I started running as fast as I can. By the time I got out there, some rescue people were out in the water, and I could see two people floating out there, and I could tell that one of them was Larry, because of his blue trunks and stuff. They got the other man out, and they were able to revive him, but it took at least 15 minutes to try to get Larry out. And he was gone.

General D. L. Johnson, Director, National Weather Service: NOAA’s National Weather Service is charged with protecting lives, and we lose over a hundred people to rip currents each year at the beach. They’re hard to detect. You ought to use all the information available to make sure that you protect your family.

Peter Davis: Rip currents are responsible for 80% of all rescues in the surf environment.

What to Do?

Peter Davis: Whenever possible, swim at a lifeguard-protected beach.

Mike Barrow, Lifeguard, Monmouth Beach, NJ: It’s not bad to go up to the lifeguard before you go in the water and ask them where they are, where you should swim, and where you shouldn’t swim.

Kevin Sweat, Lifeguard, Daytona Beach, FL: We have a lot of rip currents some days, and we have to explain where they’re at, what it’s going to feel like if you get caught in the rip current, for example, because they don’t know.

Dr. Jamie MacMahan: And this is counterintuitive. A lot of people want to swim back to shore, and that’s your first instinct, but you really need to move parallel, and then you’ll come back onshore.

Chris Brewster, United States Lifesaving Association: If you’re caught in the rip current, the first thing you want to try to do is to remain calm, stay floating. You want to try to swim along the shoreline and then on an angle back to shore, if you can do so. But if you’re unable to do that, just stay floating in the rip current. Eventually, its pull will dissipate. But if you’re a non-swimmer and you’re really unable to even stay afloat, turn around, face shore, wave your arms, yell for help—anything along those lines. If you see someone in trouble, get help from a lifeguard. If there’s no lifeguard available, possibly throw them something that floats, and give them advice on how to get back to shore. Don’t try to go in and effect a rescue. Every year, people drown trying to rescue others. Don’t become a victim trying to rescue someone else.

Carol Davis: If caught in a rip current at an unguarded beach, how you respond will make the difference between life and death.

General D. L. Johnson: Use all the information available to make sure that you protect your family.

Partnership for Awareness

Carol Davis: The United States Lifesaving Association, in partnership with NOAA’s National Weather Service and National Sea Grant program, is working together to raise awareness about the dangers of rip currents. The goal of the awareness campaign and research is to reduce the number of rip current–related fatalities.

Jim Eberwine: Over a 153 million people in this country now live within 20 miles of the shore or in coastal counties. So, the number has increased over 50% of our population.

Carol Davis: Increasing coastal populations rip currents will continue to be a serious hazard at surf beaches.

Safety Tips

Carol Davis: Follow these safety tips. Learn how to swim in the surf. It’s not the same as swimming in a pool or lake.

Peter Davis: Be cautious at all times, especially when swimming at unguarded beaches.

Sarah Love: Definitely look for rip currents. I mean, they’re out there.

Carol Davis: Watch children and the elderly when at the beach. Even in shallow water, wave action can cause loss of footing.

Chris Brewster: The best ways to avoid rip current problems:

  • Know how to swim.
  • Never swim alone.
  • Always swim in an area protected by lifeguards. In fact, United States Lifesaving Association statistics indicate that the chance of drowning in a lifeguard-protected area is 1 in 18 million.
  • Follow the recommendations of lifeguards at the beaches you go to.
  • Be cautious.
  • And by all means, if in doubt, don’t go out.

Jim Eberwine: Our hope one day is that the people, when they see these rip current indexes, are going to look at it like the UV index. “Oh, today is at 10, so I’m going to have to protect myself.” “The rip current index today is high, so I’m going to have to be extremely careful with my kids.”

General D. L. Johnson: Your first step in preparing to go to the beach ought to be to go to and check the surf zone forecast, and then get your towels and lotions ready to go.

Peter Davis: When you go to the beach, remember, this is not a pool and it’s not a pond. If you’re a non-swimmer, you have no business going out in the surf environment.

Jim Eberwine: Above all, keep your eyes on the water.

On screen: For additional information on rip currents

Break the Grip of the Rip

This has been a production of Coastal Creative Resources—

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