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PSCo. Tutorials: Rip Currents Explained

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This month’s tutorial will be exploring rip currents: What they are, how to spot and avoid them, and what to do if you find yourself in one. 

What is a rip current?

A rip current is a water current that pulls directly away from shore, and most commonly occurs at beaches with breaking waves. With 80% of all local surf rescue calls relating to rip currents, it is probably the most common hazard that you can get yourself into out there.

Water from the breaking waves flows along the shoreline in a lateral or longshore current. This longshore current feeds into a rip current when it finds its way back out to sea through channels formed in the sand. 

There are 3 different types of rip current: channelized rips, boundary rips, and flash rips.

1. Channelized rips occur at various points throughout the beach, in between sand build-ups known as sand bars or sand banks. As the name would suggest, channelized rips are channels in between these sand bars through which a rip current flows. Sand shifts over time, meaning that we cannot reliably predict where channelized rips will occur on a given day.

2. Boundary rips occur along physical boundaries such as rocks, headlands, or man-made structures such as piers or jetties. In Tofino, for example, boundary rips occur at places like Lovekin rock on Long beach, Henry’s point at the north end of North Chesterman, or Sunset point at the north end of Cox bay, as well as to the south end at Cox point. 

Important: these are not the only locations where boundary rips occur. Caution is advised when entering the water at all of our beaches.

3. Flash rips occur when a surge of water, likely from a large swell, breaks through a given sand bar and rushes back out to sea. In this way, a flash rip is similar to a channelized rip, though it will occur and dissipate more rapidly.

How do I spot and avoid a rip current?

Avoiding rip currents is a lot about spotting them early on. One of the best ways to do this is to educate yourself on what to look for, and to take time to observe the ocean environment before you enter the water. 

 Check out this useful graphic from Coast Smart:

Understanding the three main types of rips, we can easily avoid boundary rips by steering clear of headlands, rocks, jetties, and piers.

Spotting channelized and flash rips is a bit trickier as they can occur anywhere along the beach, and are often difficult to detect by looking at the ocean’s surface. Some tell tale signs are: 

  • Distinct change in water colour 
  • Churned up sand and debris
  • Appearance of a “river” flowing out to sea 
  • Distinct break in the waves: waves will break either side of the rip current channel whilst the current itself can stop the waves from breaking.

Note the change in colour in the rip channel, as well as the absence of breaking waves in that area. Not all rip currents will be as easy to spot as this one.

Tip: Manage your lateral currents before it takes you into a rip! Lateral or longshore currents flow along the shore, and will eventually feed into rip currents. Pick landmarks, and constantly check them while surfing, so that you can discern how strong, and in what direction that lateral current is flowing. This will allow you to get out of the water before that lateral current potentially feeds into a rip current.

 What do I do if I am in a rip current?

  1. Don’t panic: It sounds cliche, but it remains true. One thing I always tell my students is that rip currents aren’t dangerous, but panicking in one is. It’s really all about energy conservation. The more panicked you are, the quicker you will exhaust yourself. 

  2. Do keep your flotation device: surfboard, boogie board, inflatable etc. Whatever it is, stay with it and stay on top of it. This will save you energy and make you more visible to potential rescuers.

  3. Don’t swim against the current: A rip current can be strong enough to pull you out even if you are swimming flat out against it. Don’t exhaust yourself.

  4. Do swim perpendicular to the current: if you are a confident swimmer and aware of the direction in which the rip current is flowing, you may try to escape it by swimming or paddling perpendicular to the current. This will hopefully get you out of the current and into a zone where you can make it to shore with the help of incoming swell.

Rip currents are a powerful and humbling force of water. They are complex and variable, and as such this blog only scratches the surface. Always feel free to ask more questions about rips when renting gear or taking a surf lesson from us. As you progress as a surfer, you will learn to be comfortable in rip currents, and even use them to your advantage.

Blog written by Adam Tory

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