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Rip Current

Definition: A large amount of water at the shoreline rushes in a narrow path back to the sea.

What is a Rip Current?

No matter how a rip current is formed, the effect is the same. A large amount of water at the shoreline rushes in a narrow path back to the sea. This path of water can extend as far as 3,000 feet offshore, reach 90 feet in width, and travel up to 4 feet per second.

Rip currents, sometimes incorrectly called undertows, do not pull swimmers under the water, but can pull even experienced swimmer away from shore. A rip current is formed when water that usually moves along the shore rushes out to sea in a narrow path. This can happen where

(1) there is a break in an offshore sandbar;
(2) the longshore current is diverted by a groin, pier or jetty; or
(3) longshore currents moving in opposite directions meet.

Signs of a Rip Current

Stand on a high area, such as a sand dune or deck, and scan the water. To spot a rip current, look for the following characteristics:

  • A streak of water that is a different color. The streak may look more murky or darker than the surrounding water.
  • A gap in advancing breakers where the rip current is pushing its way seaward.
  • A line of foam extending offshore.
  • An offshore plume of turbid water past the sandbar.
  • If still unsure, throw a floating object into the water and see if it moves steadily seaward.

What to do?

  • DO NOT PANIC or try to swim against the current.
  • Swim parallel to shore until you feel the current lessen and then swim to shore.
  • If you can't break out of the current, float with it until it dissipates, usually just beyond the breakers. Then swim diagonally to shore.
  • If you do not swim well, know your limits, stay in wading depths, and watch for sudden drop-offs.

Used by Permission - Published courtesy of North Carolina Sea Grant, North Carolina State University, P.O. Box 8605, Raleigh, North Carolina 27695-8605, 919-515-2454