Beware of Rip currents.

This picture, above, shows very clearly what rip currents look like. The water flows in towards the beach over shallow water or sandbanks (The water is a lighter colour and waves break evenly over these areas) and to get back out to sea it often forms a rip current – or “river” of water – between two sand banks ( waves seldom break in a rip and the water is darker green because it is deeper).


Rip currents claim the lives of many people each year. Below is a description of how to spot them and what to do when caught in one.

You can download an A4 poster on rip currents here.

You can download Sea Rescue emergency numbers here.

You can watch a 6 minute video on rip currents here.

… And in 20 seconds see what a rip current looks like.


This picture by NSRI volunteer Torsten Henschel clearly shows a rip current ( dark green on the right) at natures valley.

What is a rip current? Rips are able to develop anywhere there are breaking waves, these “rivers” of current produced by water draining from the beach and back out to sea happen all the the time.

Often rips move slowly enough to barely be detected. But given the right circumstances of waves and beach profile, they can develop into currents moving at speeds of up to 2 metres per second – faster than any of us can swim. Ranging in width from just a few feet to hundreds of yards, their pull is normally to just outside the breaking waves.

Often the water flows parallel to the beach close to the shore (a side current or feeder rip) and then rips out to where the waves are forming. Picture Torsten Henschel.

How to spot a rip current: As with all risks, avoiding rips altogether is safest.  Though not always easily detectable – stronger rip currents can give off some telltale signs.

  • Water through a surf zone that is a different color than the surrounding water
  • A break in the incoming pattern of waves
  • seaweed or debris moving out through the surf zone
  • Isolated turbulent and choppy water in the surf zone

Often, the best resource to help you avoid rip currents – not surprisingly – are the lifeguards.

Swim only where lifeguards are on duty, and if they are not on duty do not swim.

If avoidance fails: If you are caught in a rip current the primary thing to so is to stay calm and relax.  You are not going to win a fight with the ocean.  Swim slowly and conservatively parallel to the shoreline or relax and let it carry you out past the breakers until it slacks.

Contrary to myth – rip currents are not “undertow,” which a misleading term.  They will not pull you under the water.  So long as you can tread water or float you will be safe until you can escape the flow, by swimming to the side, and head back to the beach.  When you head back in, do so at an angle to the shoreline.  Be sure to maintain a slow and relaxed pace until you reach the shore or assistance arrives.  If you are swimming at a beach where lifeguards are on duty ─ and you should never swim if lifeguards are not on duty  ─ they will be able to help you.

Other tips:

  • Talk to the lifeguards about local hazards before getting in the water.
  • Experienced surfers go out when it’s rough because it’s fun and they are tethered to huge boards that float. If you’re not VERY comfortable in rough water over your head – stay out of rough water totally.
  • NEVER swim alone.
  • There is nothing wrong with making young children wear approved life jackets to play in the surf. That doesn’t mean you can leave them alone – but it will make them safer.
  • Discuss rip currents and how to deal with them with your children. In fact, make them read every page of and write you a report.
  • Swim only on beaches where lifeguards are on duty.  That has been said often for a reason.

25 Responses to “Beware of Rip currents.”

  1. dorian siemssen
    16. Mar, 2012 at 13:16 #

    little info pages like this would be really nice on a regular basis,thanks for info.

  2. Brynn
    16. Mar, 2012 at 16:04 #

    Thanks, I agree, it made an interesting read.

  3. Michele Batstone
    16. Mar, 2012 at 20:03 #

    Very good, clear information – it needs to be repeated often and posters should be in all schools

  4. Margaret McCulloch
    19. Mar, 2012 at 07:21 #

    an excellent comprehensive explanation. That photo of the Plet shoreline is a tremendous pictorial illustration of a rip.

  5. Romy
    26. Mar, 2012 at 10:24 #

    Thank you for this great explanation.
    After the rugby players drowning – wish they had known before! – the most important thing to remember is:
    Don’t panic!
    Having swum the “Jetty Mile” at Swakopmund, I know what a rip-current can do.
    This page / info should be more public!

  6. Janet Burgess
    05. Apr, 2012 at 10:28 #

    An excellent description of what to do in a riptide and what to avoid.

  7. su Huntley
    23. Sep, 2013 at 16:55 #

    I have been caught in one.
    I was 17.
    By the time the life savers reached me I had already remembered a thousand dreams.
    I saw these beings swimming towards me in a v formation linked together with rope.
    I thought someone must be drowning I had already partially left.

    Thank you for this information.

  8. Gail Etzine
    24. Sep, 2013 at 03:54 #

    Amazing, clear information – have posted this page on my FB, suggesting we should all read it and file it away….just in case we get into this situation.
    I never knew how to try and read a rip current before but will most certainly be practicing from now on!

  9. EL
    24. Sep, 2013 at 15:12 #

    Nice job outlining the key points about the dangers of rip currents!

  10. Enah Eras
    27. Sep, 2013 at 10:55 #

    Brilliant onfo! I swim in Camps Bay and had no idea about the rip current. Two teenagers drowned recently in the rip current! Camps Bay beach has Blue Flag status. Is that the reason why the Notice board has being removed? Do you maybe know?

  11. Stephen Roberts
    18. Dec, 2013 at 19:43 #

    When you get to the beach, spend ten minutes watching the sea to identify rip currents, what the waves are doing, big undertows, what swimmers are doing and what lifesavers are doing. This needs to be put into public service ads on TV. Great content.

  12. Joseph
    19. Dec, 2013 at 21:10 #

    Yep. I got caught in a rip once. Best teaching ever… stay calm, stay afloat and swim parallel. I can write this note today cos that’s what I did at the time.

  13. Lester
    20. Dec, 2013 at 19:05 #

    Thank you for this! Very informative

  14. Gail Hayes
    21. Dec, 2013 at 13:37 #

    This should be placed on TV all year and not just for the late night shows but also during early evening when people are sitting eating.
    I was caught in a rip when I was 17 and it was what my mother had instilled in us from our first visit to the sea that saved me. 1. Don’t eat or consume alchol on the beach for at least an hour. 2. Before going into the sea take a look at the beach and fix a marker for yourself, between two umbrellas or towels visible from the sea. Study and listen to the locals around you. 3. Keep checking once you are in the water that you are not drifting out of your markers. 4 Know how to float in case you get tired or cramps or caught in the rip. 5. PANIC DROWNS YOU – the sea is not your natural element so have a plan for things like emergencies. STAY CALM and swim across the rip not against it and rest when you are tired by floating even if you are losing ground made up. This saved me when I was 16 and it cand save everyone who knows about it. An excellent article and public service that should be shared with everyone.

  15. nikki Rachwal
    23. Dec, 2013 at 08:50 #

    very informative and interesting….well explained

  16. Leticia Ahrendse
    30. Dec, 2013 at 10:11 #

    Thanks .Very helpful and informative.

  17. Linda Becker
    03. Jan, 2014 at 17:23 #

    Thank you! This information is very informative and I’m sure, a lifesaver for many!!


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