It’s summer vacation time and that means beach trips for a lot of families. Recently, we’ve had several deaths due to rip currents in the Gulf of Mexico. It’s horrifying to have to see these reports in the news and it leaves us terrified when we go to the beach. As a parent, I pound the risks in my children’s heads so they are aware of what can happen while in the gulf. It wasn’t until recently that I learned exactly what happens in the water when this natural force occurs. Upon learning it, I thought it would be good to share with others, and also give some tips on what to do if you find yourself in a rip current.

Many don’t realize that rip current, undertow, and rip tide are all different things. They often get lumped together like they are all the same. According to Men’s Journal, the terms riptide and undertow are technically not the correct terms for the dangerous ocean phenomenon. It’s actually called a rip current.

Here is how those three things are different.

Undertow

An undertow isn’t usually life-threatening. An undertow happens when a wave breaks along the ocean shore. The wave breaks when it hits the sandy shore. Once that happens, gravity pulls backward and the water is sucked right back into the ocean with little force. Swimmers will feel like they’re being sucked underwater when the wave breaks over their heads. They may tumble around roughly, but it will not pull you offshore into deep water. An undertow is usually only dangerous for small children or those who can’t walk up the beach against the strong backwash flow. Undertow is a natural thing for almost any large body of water.

Riptide

A riptide is a powerful current caused by the tide pulling water through an inlet along a barrier beach. When there is a falling or ebbing tide, the water is flowing strongly through an inlet toward the ocean, especially one stabilized by jetties. During the slack tide, when water is unstressed, the water is not moving for a short time until the rising tide starts pushing the seawater landward through the inlet. Riptides also happen in bays and lagoons where there are no waves.

Rip Current

Rip currents are strong offshore flows and often occur when breaking waves push water up the beach. This piled-up water has to go back out to the sea as water seeks its own level. Typically, the return flow, or backwash, is relatively uniform along the beach, so rip currents aren’t present. If there is an area where the water can flow back out the ocean more easily, such as a break in the sand bar, then a rip current can form. Rip currents are usually noticed in about knee-to-waist high water. They can be extremely difficult to escape by walking back toward shore against the current, especially if you are in chest-deep water. These strong currents pull the water and whatever is in it and only stops when it is offshore where the water can be quite deep. Rip currents are extremely dangerous and are a serious risk.

Not only is there confusion over the proper name, but there is also confusion regarding how rip currents actually happen and how they put swimmers in danger. Because of the fact that many think it’s called an undertow, people also assume that means a swimmer will get pulled down below the surface, but that is not the case. Rip currents will actually pull swimmers out away from the shore. When this happens, many swimmers who don’t know better will react by trying to fight the current and swim back to shore. Fighting the strong current will only exhaust the swimmer which makes drowning a serious risk.

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Rip currents can be life-threatening especially to swimmers who are young, weak, or tired. Always be aware of your rip current threat. There are color-coded flags placed on many beaches each day to let swimmers know the current threat. A green flag is a low risk, meaning that strong rip currents aren’t likely. A yellow flag is a moderate risk, meaning that there is a good chance for strong rip currents. A red flag is a high risk, meaning that strong rip currents are expected.

Tips to keep in mind:

  • Don’t try to swim toward the shore against the current. Instead, swim parallel to the shore, out of the path of the rip current. When you get out of the current, you can swim back in toward the shore. Most rip currents are only 50-100 feet wide, so you shouldn’t have to swim too far to get out of it. Think of it like a treadmill that you can’t turn off so you need to step to the side of it.
  • Remain calm to conserve energy and think clearly.
  • If you are unable to swim out of a rip current, float or calmly tread water. When you get out of the current, then swim toward the shore.
  • If you are still unable to reach the shore, draw attention to yourself by waving your arm and yelling for help.
  • Know how to identify rip currents before you get into the water. If you see a channel of smooth surface water where waves seem to be lower, that may be a rip current so avoid it. Here is a video of National Ocean Service channel on YouTube:

For more information and tips, visit the National Weather Service website.