Waves breaking catching sunlight Photo Mourad Saadi

Understanding rip currents

Choosing a lifeguarded beach and always swimming between the red and yellow flags is the best way to keep safe. But having an understanding of the sea is also vital, as is knowing what to do if you do happen to get into difficulty.

3 important facts you need to know about rip currents

Rip currents are a major cause of accidental drowning on beaches all across the world, and in the UK over 60% of RNLI lifeguard incidents involve rip currents. Rips are strong currents running out to sea, which can quickly take you from the shallows out of your depth. They can be difficult to spot but can often be identified by a channel of churning, choppy water or debris on the sea’s surface.

1. Calm water is not always the best place to swim

Many people inadvertently end up in a rip current as a result of choosing to enter the water where there is no white water from waves. This is often where a rip is present, with ripples on the surface indicating a flow of water out to sea.

2. Rip currents do not pull you underwater

Rips take you away from the beach, and often eventually back to the waves.  Rip current related drowning is therefore due to panic and fatigue.

3. There is no such thing as a "rip tide"

Some people refer to rip currents as ‘rip tides’, which suggests the water level changes over a long period, of 6-12 hours, whereas rip currents are water currents moving over a period of seconds, minutes and hours.

What should you do if you get caught in a rip current

RNLI lifeguards are trained to identify rips and mark out a safe swim zone based on sea conditions. They will show you how to avoid rips but if you get caught in one:

  • stay calm – don’t panic
  • if you can stand, wade don’t swim
  • keep hold of your board or inflatable to help you float
  • raise your hand and shout for help
  • never try to swim directly against the rip or you’ll get exhausted
  • swim parallel to the beach until free of the rip, then make for shore
  • If you see anyone else in trouble, alert the lifeguards or call 999 or 112 and ask for the Coastguard.

You can find out more about how RNLI keep our beaches safe, with lots of information about lifeguards, rescue equipment and signage.