How to survive Rip Currents!

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The thriller movie, Jaws, released in theaters way back in 1975, has forever cemented a fear of shark attack in our minds. Even innocent porpoises, diving through the surf, create panic the moment we see a fin slicing through the water. And, while 70 shark attacks happen worldwide each year, more than 50,000 people are rescued from rip currents by life guards at US beaches alone each year. And, sadly, 100 people die annually. And, for that reason, this post, “How to survive rip currents,” is probably the most important article I have ever written.

When planning your beach vacation, it’s important to have the beach bag essentials and to have a rainy day contingency plan. AND, it’s equally important to know how to recognize rip tides, and HOW TO SURVIVE rip currents.

As you plan family vacation, reunions or friends’ getaways, share this information with other adults and older kids in your group. Always obey life guard warnings. And, have a great vacation!

Young children in life jackets and swim clothes at the beach.

If you’re traveling to a beach without life guard stations, it’s even more important to know how to identify rip currents and to know how to escape their clutches. It’s also helpful to have kickboards or life preservers that you can toss out to those caught in rip currents to help them conserve their energy until they can safely swim to shore.

What is a rip current?

Rip currents, also called rip tides, 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, are the roll of waves back out to sea. Just below the surface, they pull back out toward the ocean at speeds of up to eight feet per second, much faster than anyone can swim. When you walk along the shore, you have felt them pulling at your feet. Further out, these same waves roll back to sea, just below the surface.

An important misconception is that rip currents pull you under. They don’t! They are in the roll of the waves. Those same waves you ride IN to shore on a boogie board are the same waves you ride OUT in a rip current. Understanding that, hopefully, eases the fear of drowning.

How does a rip current kill you?

When caught in a rip current, many people panic, and that’s the main reason people die. Not expecting to be pulled away from the beach, people frantically swim against the current, trying 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. That panic interferes with the ability to breathe deeply or think calmly.

All of it is completely avoidable!

Scientifically speaking, here is how a rip current kills you. 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 rip currents?

Now you know what not to do: (1) don’t panic, and (2) DON’T swim toward shore! So, exactly what do you need to know for how to survive rip currents?

Instead, here’s what you need to know for how to survive rip currents.

Know how to identify a rip current

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, but it will NOT wash them out to sea.

You can’t always see a rip current, but they generally look like “rivers” flowing against the ocean when they are visible. It’s more important to know how to feel the current pulling you away from shore and that it will not keep going forever, not even a football field away from shore.

Know what to do if caught in a rip current

It might sound crazy to do this, but it could save someone’s life. I have known three people who died in rip currents off the shores of North Carolina, and every time, the death was preventable. Twice, the people who died were adults trying to rescue kids caught in the current. It’s heartbreaking, and a short “safety training” is key to not panicking! Make sure that everyone understands how to respond if caught in a rip current.

Don’t swim for shore!

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. Not even Michael Phelps could swim against a rip current! Don’t swim for shore!

Turtle and “ride the wave!”

Instead, roll onto your back, tuck your knees close to your chest like you’re a turtle lying on your back, and “ride the wave.” It won’t last long, maybe three minutes. Curling up in a ball on your back allows you to breathe, helps you “do something” to save yourself (and avoid panic), and lets the ocean carry you out of the rip current. You can YELL for help. Someone on shore might have a flotation device!

Swim parallel to shore

Once you feel in control again, and not like the ocean is pulling you away, it’s time to make your way back to shore. First, swim parallel to shore to pull away from the danger. Rip currents go away from the beach, so it makes sense that when you consider how to survive rip currents you would want to swim parallel to shore to get away from the dangerous current area.

Review safety rules before you start your beach day

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

  • Check local beach advisories before you go to the beach. If the rip current warnings are high or moderate, stay out of the water.
  • 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 sober should be watching for safety at all times.

AND REMEMBER, 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.

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. Throw it into the current as far as you can, but do NOT go in the water!
  • Remind them to STAY CALM AND FLOAT!
  • But do not swim into the rip current.

Other helpful tips for how to survive rip currents

  • 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! On the east coast, people ignore life guard warnings in heavy waves before hurricanes. This is very dangerous, and puts swimmer, life guards and other rescue personnel in danger.
  • 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 still drown. I’ll keep sharing until everyone knows how to survive rip currents. Will you please share and help spread the word? Thank you.

How to survive rip currents image for pinterest with kids on a beach and title "Rip current safety".

Thank you! Together, we can save lives.