How to Survive a Rip Current for Weak and Strong Swimmers

Multiple rip currents in Tunquen, Chile. Photo courtesy of Cecilia and Randy Lascody / NOAA.

How to Survive a Rip Current for Weak and Strong Swimmers

It’s happened to me twice. I’ve been caught in and survived two strong rip currents, once while snorkeling and once while scuba diving. The scuba diving experience was easier of course, but still difficult. But the snorkeling experience was really difficult. For a minute, I thought I wasn’t going to make it.

There have been several times in the water I thought I was done for, and these were no exception.

Some people call them Rip Tides and others call them Rip Current, but they’re actually a current, either way if your not careful it will be RIP for you. I’m telling you, the ocean is strong, much stronger than any of us. No matter how good of a swimmer you are, the ocean can and will always kick your butt. Rivers too. Water is strong, and fast moving water is unstoppable. A foot of fast moving water can knock you off your feet.

So never underestimate water of any kind, especially the ocean.

The ocean has claimed thousands of lives, and not just from shipwrecks.

Some friends and I were out on an artificial reef in Hawaii, the waves were huge that day, and one of the guys I was with turned his back to the ocean and paid the price. A massive wave came in and while both my other friend and I ducked, grabbed ahold of the rocks and braced ourselves, our unlucky friend was picked up by the wave and slammed against the rocks. He was a mess. He got hurt really bad. But that was in relative safety too. These stacks of rocks were connected to land, so we were relative safe.

But that’s the lesson, disrespect, underestimate or turn your back on the ocean for a second and your done for.

So I was scuba diving one day and was caught in a rip current. The water was pretty shallow, about 10-15 feet and the ocean floor was sandy with only some reef sticking out here and there. After trying to swim against the current for a long time and wondering what was going on because I wasn’t going anywhere I soon realized I was in a rip current. Thinking I was cool I decided to try to fight it for a bit, but I was quickly loosing energy so I figured an alternative was necessary. I had a knife and a net with a handle so I used both to pull myself along the ocean floor. One hand in front of the other and made my way to shore.

Well that was my first time. And when I got to shore I was absolutely exhausted, I mean wiped out. But I lived to scuba another day.

The second time I got caught in a rip tide I was in a very different situation. I was snorkeling and I had equipment. We were catching fish for our fish tanks so we had big buckets, weights, nets and a bunch of gear. So it was difficult to swim in the best of conditions. The water was pretty calm that day and we were pretty close to shore. But we were in a strange place where within just a few seconds you could be swept out to sea really fast. It’s hard to explain, but it’s as if the shore and the deep water were really close to each other.

So there were shallows, then an underwater cliff which quickly lead to deep water.

This was also a very rocky area with small cliffs and lots of reef sticking out of the water with a small channel in between two small cliffy areas. So my friend and I were heading in and soon realized we weren’t going anywhere, and we were not far from the beach either. We both agreed to swim harder and after a few minutes my friend said we have to do something quick because he’s loosing energy fast. and said he’s in trouble. So, the two geniuses that we were, we thought maybe we could make it to one of the cliffy areas on either side of us. So we decided to swim in the direction of the shore, sideways, and not against or with the current, but side to side and very quickly we were out of the current’s pull.

So that was my big aha moment. Then afterwords I researched rip currents and confirmed what I just learned through experience, and learned quite a bit more of course. So, to escape or survive a rip current you certainly don’t want to let it pull you out to sea if you can help it, so don’t go with the current, and fighting it is a waste of energy. As I said before the ocean is much stronger than we are so fighting such a strong current is useless, so don’t try to fight the current, period.  Swimming right to left or diagonally, following along the shore line is the best way to get out of the current.

It’s also true no matter what kind of water you’re in, an ocean, river or even a flood.

Basically you’re being taken with the current, but you’re moving to the side, sideways or diagonally so you’re making progress and not fighting the current.

If you’re in semi-shallow water and you start to feel a strong pull you’re probably in a rip current and it’s time to act quickly, and I mean quickly. I’ve been in other situations where the current just a few feet off shore is so strong that it pulls people out to sea frequently, and it almost got me one day too, but I acted really quickly because I knew what was happening.

The first lesson is really to stay calm and think your way through this. If it’s shallow enough that you can walk and keep your chest above water then quickly walk in to shore or side to side, depending on the situation.

Keep in mind what a rip current does and does not do. It does not pull you under water, it pulls you out to sea. So unless you try to fight the current and you’re out of energy then you probably won’t drown. But if you use up all your energy trying to fight the current, then you will be pulled out to sea and more than likely loose your life.

A voice or sound doesn’t travel far on the ocean, but if you think you’re in serious trouble wave your hands in the air and yell for help. Waving hands in the water means distress and you need help. Hopefully someone on shore will see you and come to your aid, hopefully a lifeguard is on duty.

But as I said earlier, if no one is able to help you, and you’re in trouble, being pulled out to sea, then don’t try to fight the current and head towards shore, you’ll have to swim parallel to shore or a bit diagonally to break free of the current.

Disclaimer

I would like everyone to remember, much like any survival advice, there is no foolproof way to survive anything, including a rip current. This is simply the best advice out there. Just like a bear attack, an earthquake, a tornado or a tsunami there is only best practices and the best advice for surviving any of these situations. So I’m not making the claim that this will save you, but it does however, greatly increases your chances.

Okay, now remember, when you’re swimming from side to side you will be going with mostly the current, which means you will be getting pulled out to sea, but if you keep a calm head and don’t panic and keep swimming along the shore line, you’re sure to make it out of the rip current and then you can swim back to shore. Rip currents are not usually that wide. They’re usually between 20 to 200 feet. The first one I was in was about 150 feet across, and the second was maybe 20 feet max. So they vary greatly.

Also, no matter where you are in this process, if you are spent and have no energy left, or if you feel that you’re loosing energy quickly then you’ll need to start conserving energy. You’re best bet is to either float on your back, kicking in the direction you want to go, and/or treading water, not fighting the current. You’re going to be loosing ground by doing this, but you have to do it because if you don’t then you will loose the fight.

I don’t know if you’ve ever been truly spent, completely out of energy, if not then you really don’t understand what I’m talking about, you don’t know how it feels, so you’ll have to trust me on this. When you’re out of energy, completely out of energy, and the ocean will do it to you quickly, you’re finished, you can’t move, your close to death, depending on the situation.  It’s a very strange feeling to not be able to move, not be able to lift your head or arms.

So the point is to relax and regain your energy as quickly as possibly. Then continue to swim either left or right or diagonally to get out of the current before you’re too far out to sea for it to matter.

The Best Advice for Surviving a Rip Current Is:

The smartest thing you can do is to not get caught in a rip current in the first place. So the best advice is to learn to spot a rip current before you go in the water. And by the way, you should always take a few minutes to observe the ocean before you go in anyway, no matter why you’re at the beach.

You should always check the local beach forecast, or the surf report.
For the average person, it’s best to go to beaches with lifeguards as the chances of being helped or rescued during times like this is much greater.

The National Weather Service says:

Learn more about rip currents and beach safety developed by Texas A&M
• Check water conditions before going in by looking at the local beach forecast before you leave for the beach and talking to the lifeguard at the beach.
• Only swim at a beach with lifeguards. The chances of drowning at a beach with lifeguards are 1 in 18 million (U.S. Lifesaving Association).
• Don’t assume! Great weather for the beach does not always mean it’s safe to swim or even play in the shallows. Rip currents often form on calm, sunny days.
• Learn how to spot a rip current. The Break the Grip of the Rip free online training will help you learn how to spot a rip current.
• What are scientists doing to keep swimmers safer? Find out in this video: Predict the Rip
• Rip currents aren’t the only deadly beach hazard. Learn more about dangerous waves and other hazards and why you should never to turn your back on the ocean.

To learn more visit:
https://www.weather.gov/safety/ripcurrent
and here is a great tutorial about Rip Currents:
https://training.weather.gov/BreaktheGripoftheRip/player.html

Good luck, and I hope you enjoy the beach and the water, but safely of course.

If you’ve had a life threatening experience in a survival situation email us and we’ll try to publish it for you.

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