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How to: Spot a rip

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How to: Spot a rip

Rip currents are a fundamental and unavoidable force in surfing; if you have waves pushing water into the beach, then you’ll have a rip current sucking water back out to sea again.

Signs on the beach warn surfers and swimmers of rip currents
Rip currents are a fact or surfing. Prior knowledge goes a long way. 

Spotting a rip
Rips are essentially deeper channels in the sea bed and behave a lot like rivers, so once you know what to look for, spotting them isn’t difficult. The most common place to find a rip is against a groyne, pier, headland or other large feature. When checking out a beach for the first time, look for these type of features and then observe the way the water behaves around them. You’ll notice the following:
– The water is more choppy
– The water is visibly flowing out to sea
–  The water can be discoloured from picking up sediment and sand
– Waves aren’t breaking as it’s too deep

A rip current flows out to sea at Little Fistral, easily spotted by rough textured water
Check the rip current flowing out to sea in the foreground. Note: no waves breaking there!

Using a rip
So since waves don’t break in rip currents, and the water is flowing out to sea, this does make them handy conveyor belts for confident surfers to use to quickly ‘get out the back’ without having to paddle through the impact zone. To use a rip, a surfer would jump in at the shore, paddle out in the choppy water of the current, and as they draw level with the line-up where other surfers are sitting, exit the rip by paddling across it.
A surfer could then catch a wave, ride it to the end, and then paddle back into the rip to circle out to the line-up again without ever needing to duck dive.

A surfer uses the deep water of a rip current to paddle out to sea
This surfer was able to paddle out back easily despite the size of the breaking surf

Rip hazards
For all their convenience, rips are one of the most hazardous features on the beach. Because waves typically don’t break in the deeper water of a rip, unwary water users can mistake them for being safer than sections of the beach with breaking surf. Breaking surf however will push a tired swimmer back to the shore, whereas a rip current will just take them out to sea. Areas of breaking surf may be shallow enough to stand up in, whereas a rip a few meters along the beach will invariably be too deep to stand in, compounding any fatigue a swimmer is already dealing with.

A rip current runs a long way out to sea on a beach in Cornwall.
A lone surfer using a rip current at Fistral Beach. Notice how far out to sea it runs.

Escaping a rip
Escaping a rip is much like getting out of a river if you fell in off a bridge. As the current sweeps you downstream, you wouldn’t turn round to face it and try to swim upstream back towards the bridge, no, you’d angle across the river and strike out for the nearest bank. It’s the same in the ocean. If you find yourself in a choppy no wave zone being drawn out to sea, angle your board across it and paddle parallel to the shore, towards an area of breaking surf.
– Keep calm, and paddle with steady, long strokes. Panic uses energy.
– Always stay on your board, it is your life raft and visual aid to people spotting you.
– Call for help if you feel you are struggling.

Two stand-up paddlers take the safety of a deep water channel amidst some large waves
Stand-up paddlers use a deep water channel. Notice how much choppier the water is compared to the breaking wave face.

The best advice
When you turn up to surf, watch the water for ten minutes. This will give enough time for you to see a couple of sets breaking, and to spot the tell-tale signs of a rip. Talk to lifeguards and other surfers for some local knowledge, stay cool and enjoy your deeper understanding of the ocean.

Hans van Mourik

Co-founder SurfaWhile, ♥️ tech, travel, sports & outdoors.

3 thoughts on “How to: Spot a rip

  1.  Thanks for this, am actually a diver and an environmental scientist (rarely surf though) so have a little understanding of rips, it is always handy to be reminded about them and how dangerous they are no matter what water activity you are doing at the beach. I had forgotten about the colour change though due to the sediment and the easiest way to spot them is when wearing polarised shades, it always makes it easier planning a dive around a headland or beach knowing where they are.

    1. Good tip about the polarised shades Phil – sometimes it can be hard to study the water at a west facing coastline when the afternoon sun is beating down!

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