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Rip Currents - How to identify them and what to do?

also inaccurately described as rip tides or undertows.

A rip current is not a tide, nor does it suck you under the water. A rip current actually pulls a person out to sea and away from shore. The flow of the current is strongest right at the surface. Contrary to popular belief, there is no downwards pull.

There's a simple explanation for this natural phenomenon:

Water always seeks it's own level. Anywhere that waves break, there is the possibility of rip currents forming. Most rip currents are less than 100 to 150 wide but can be wider. Some beaches provide the ideal environment for rip currents to form and anywhere that you will find surfers, you will almost always find rip currents. Josiah's Bay Beach on Tortola is one such beach and so is its next door neighbour, Elizabeth Beach. There are more places with rip currents throughout the BVI, including the Bubbly Pool. Be sure to ask the locals or other beach goers if there are any rip currents present.

What goes up must come down! Similarly, the water from incoming waves must flow back out to sea. In most cases, the outgoing flow of the water is weaker than the incoming waves, posing no problem to bathers.

Rip currents are often strongest at beaches having a relatively steep slope down to the water. Wave heights and frequency also have a direct impact on how strong a rip current may be.

However, some beaches are prone to sand bar development or they may have natural rock formations, a relatively short distance offshore. These formations serve to stem the backflow of water. This is when rip currents can develop.

The receding water must flow back out to sea, and a sand bar or rocks hamper the process. We know that water will always find the path of least resistance. If there is a break or low point in the sandbar or rock formation, that is where the outflow will go. The width of the current is dependant upon the width of the break in the sandbar or rocks and the speed of the current is dependant upon the volume of water flowing through the break.

Identifying a Rip Current While at the Beach:

Some wide rip currents can be easily spotted if you know what you are looking for. But some rip currents are not so easy to see and can be very narrow. In many cases, you will see a patch of what appears to be calm water between two areas that have incoming waves. That seemingly calm area is almost always a rip! Foam, seaweed or debris on the surface of the water flowing out to see is also a very good indicator of a rip current. Here is a reasonably good video to help you learn to identify a rip. You will also find some pretty good photos of rip currents here.

What to do if Caught in a Rip Current:

If you can swim ... calmly and slowly, swim parallel to the beach until you swim out of the current. The current will have carried you out from shore, but don't panic. Once out of the current, take your time and swim diagonally towards shore, away from the current. Stop and rest by floating on your back as often as necessary. Do not wear yourself out.

If you can't swim but can float, yell for help, lie on your back and let the current take you out to sea. The current will subside, you won't end up in Africa, so stay calm. Keep yelling for help for as long as it takes for help to arrive. As long as you can float, you'll be fine.

Panic and fighting the current will only lead to exhaustion and the possibility of drowning. Keep your wits about you, remember to swim along the beach (parallel) and above all else, do not panic.

If you can neither swim nor float, do not go in the water at any beach on a wavy day ... period. Not even up to your ankles! A rip current can undermine the sand you are standing on very easily, causing you to fall. Once that happens, if you can't swim, you could easily be carried out to sea by the current.

See this video for a better understanding.

Last updated: Jan 5th 2015
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