Rip Currents: Safety tips for beach vacation

Jaws, released in theaters way back in 1975, forever cemented a fear of shark attacks in our minds. Innocent porpoises diving in and out of waves can clear the water instantly when one person screams, “Shark!” No one questions it — see a fin and panic ensues.

Sharks, though, are hardly the most dangerous thing in our oceans. In fact, National Geographic reports there are about 19 shark attacks per year in the United States. Though millions of people flock to U.S. beaches each year, the risk of attack or death is negligible. (Source)

If Jaws isn’t a big danger, what is?

The answer is rip currents.

According to NOAA (the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration), approximately 50,000 people are rescued from rip currents by life guards at beaches in the United States each year.

rip current safety

Sadly, about 100 people die each year from getting caught in rip currents at beaches across the United States, most often at beaches without life guards. Even more heart-breaking is that these deaths are easily avoided.

What does a rip current look like?

Rip currents are present on just about every beach in the world every day.

When waves break, most of the water rushes in toward the beach — that’s how we “ride the waves” in surfing and body boarding.

Rip currents, though, pull back out toward the ocean at speeds of up to eight feet per second, much faster than anyone can swim.

If you’ve been in the ocean, you have felt them pulling at your feet. The higher the waves, the faster the currents tend to be. Thus, the more dangerous they are.

How do rip currents kill?

Rip current safety

When caught in a rip current, many people panic, which leads to how rip currents kill.

Not expecting to be pulled away from the beach, they frantically swim to get back to shore.

The problem is that the rip current pulls them away faster than they can swim against it.

That feeling of being swept out to sea increases the panic. Panic too much and drown from the fatigue of fighting the current and swallowing water.

All of it is completely avoidable!

In a nutshell, here is how people drown in a rip current. The wave rushes toward shore. As the water pulls away in the ebb and flow of waves, some of it flows out at a right angle to the beach in the “neck” of the rip, a tight turn where water flow is most rapid. When people get caught in that neck of the rip current, they panic. Swimming toward shore against a strong current they can’t beat, they get exhausted, panic and drown.

How to survive a rip current?

Rather than panic and fight the current, it’s important to remain calm to survive a rip current.

Before your beach vacation, understand rip currents, how to spot them and what to do if you get caught in a rip current.

First: Make sure every member in your group understands what a rip current is — simply a current pulling away from the beach for a few minutes. It will carry them out maybe 80 feet from shore — not wash them out to sea.

Second: Make sure that everyone understands how to respond if caught in a rip current.

  • When you get caught in a rip current pulling you swiftly away from shore, your first instinct might be to swim toward the beach. It won’t work! The current is stronger than you can swim.
  • Instead, roll onto your back, tuck your knees close to your chest and “ride the wave.” It won’t last long, maybe three minutes. (Read this for a detailed explanation.)
  • Then, when you feel in control, swim parallel to shore to pull out of the current. You can swim across a rip current to break free of it if you stay calm.
  • Here’s a diagram to show you how it’s done.

Third: As you start your beach day, review rip current safety.

  • Show kids how to float on their back if the waves decide to “take them for a ride.”
  • Make sure you have life jackets or a life preserver available if needed to rescue someone from a rip current.
  • Never go in the water alone — someone should be watching for safety at all times.


You can’t swim toward shore against a rip current!

How can I help someone escape a rip current?

Often, when one person gets caught in a rip current, friends and family try to rescue them — and both end up drowning. It happens every year.

The best way to help someone escape a rip current is to make sure everyone understands them and how to respond BEFORE stepping in the water.

Then, resist the urge to swim out to save them. Instead:

  • Get help from a lifeguard if the beach has them.
  • Scream for someone to call 911 if there is no lifeguard nearby.
  • Then, throw something that floats out to the person caught in the rip current — a life jacket, pool noodle, cooler, inflatable ball, anything like that.
  • Remind them to STAY CALM AND FLOAT!
  • But do not swim into the rip current.

Other helpful tips to protect against rip current drownings:

  • Never swim alone.
  • Do not swim while consuming alcohol — intoxication decreases awareness and leads to many ocean related deaths each year.
  • Obey life guard instructions. If they say it’s too dangerous to swim, stay out of the water. They know what they’re talking about!
  • Review ocean safety rules every time you go to the beach.
  • Rest, rehydrate and refuel often. You use more energy playing in the ocean than you might realize. Take breaks to rehydrate and refuel so that you have the energy to swim to shore if you ever do get “taken for a ride” on a rip current.


Every year, I update this post and share it on social media. And yet, people drown in rip currents every year. Please share this to your Pinterest accounts for vacation tips, beach travel, travel safety and water safety boards (whatever you have).

rip current safety tips

Please tweet it — especially before summer vacation and holiday weekends. Tag your local beaches so people will see it.

And, share to Facebook. Every summer. Often! This is the most important blog post I have ever written. It can save lives. People need to be aware!

Thank you! Together, we can save lives.

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