Everything You’ve Heard About Surviving a Rip Current Is Wrong

Plus, more common myths about rip currents, debunked.

There are a lot of common myths about how to survive rip currents and even just about what they actually are. For starters, the name: Rip currents are often confused for undertow or riptides but they are actually completely different.

What’s the difference between a rip current and a riptide?

The terms “rip current” and “rip tide” are often used interchangeably, but they are actually totally different things. A riptide is a phenomenon that occurs specifically in areas with inlets, estuaries, lagoons, harbors, or similar land structures as the tides go in and out. It is a strong current that is caused by the tidal flow pulling water along a barrier beach in a particular way due to the enclosed land area. A rip current can occur on any beach and is simply a swift current of water headed away from shore back to the surf zone. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) released this video to explain the difference.

And an undertow? That’s when the water below the surface is moving in a different direction from any surface current. All water approaching a beach has an undertow of the last wave, heading back out into the open water, but particularly strong undertows may pull swimmers under the surface of the water, which can be also dangerous. Despite undertows being more common, rip currents prove to be more deadly. In 2018, the National Weather Service reported that there were 68 fatalities on U.S. beaches caused by rip currents, with only seven drownings attributed to any other causes. These statistics are just some of the water safety tips lifeguards wish you knew.

Other myths

Rip currents are actually very common. Because you don’t often hear about them, many swimmers assume this is a freak occurrence that they do not need to be on alert for, but that is simply untrue. Rip currents are very common and surfers often look for them and use them to get out to deeper water and bigger waves without having to swim all the way out.

Another myth? If you get caught in one, you’ll be swept out to sea forever. Even in the absolute worst scenario involving a rip current, you won’t be swept out into the middle of the ocean. You may have a long swim ahead of you by the time you get out, but rip currents are part of a closed circuit of water flow, which means that at some point in the cycle, the water will begin returning to shore.

The third most common myth about rip currents is that if you don’t see one, you don’t have to worry about them. While there are a few key tricks in spotting a rip current, you may miss them entirely and be halfway out before you realize there’s a problem. So the question raises itself: How do you protect yourself from a rip current?

View of coastal rip current.vivanvu/Shutterstock

Know before you go

Dr. Greg Dusek, senior scientist at the NOAA, stresses the “know before you go” mantra as a key part of beach safety. The easiest way to survive a rip current is to never get swept into a rip current. Dr. Dusek’s tips for beach preparation are to check beach conditions before arriving, and if possible, swim near a lifeguard. These and other beach safety rules can save your life.

It’s also important to continually be aware of the water you’re swimming in. Pay attention and avoid dangerous conditions, like wildlife, excessive waves, and rip currents. An easy way to spot the rip current? Look for areas where waves aren’t breaking, and foam, seaweed, and discolored water are being pulled away from the shore, rather than towards it.

What to do if you’re in a rip current

The first step is to relax. One common misconception about rip currents is that you’re going to be pulled under, but rip currents pull you away from the shore, not under the waves. Don’t fight the waves; stay calm. The next step is to swim parallel to the shoreline until you have exited the current. When you get to the current’s edge, you may be pulled further from shore, but again it is important to remember to stay calm. “Then, you’ll want to follow the waves back to shore at an angle pointing away from the rip current,” Dr. Dusek advises. “If you are not able to swim out of the rip current, you’ll want to float, and wave your arms, and call for help.”

What to do if you see someone in a rip current

Your initial reaction may be to rush out after them to help, but according to the NOAA, most victims of drowning due to rip currents were people who rushed out to help the initial swimmer. If you see someone stuck in a rip current, DO NOT go out after them. Get the help of a lifeguard if one is present, as they will be trained in how to handle the situation. You can also help by throwing a floatation device out into the water after them to help them stay afloat while escaping the current. The third thing to do is to call 9-1-1 for assistance. You should also keep in mind these water safety tips adults should follow but don’t in order to stay safe on your next beach day.

Isabel Roy
Isabel Roy is a former newsletter editor at Reader’s Digest who writes and reports on home, culture and general interest stories. She graduated from the University of Wisconsin La Crosse in 2017 with a B.A. in Rhetoric and Writing.