Stay Safe at the Beach: 6 Reasons Rip Currents Are Risky

why are rip currents dangerous

It’s hot, and the beach is a trusted oasis. But beach safety is necessary to avoid getting yanked out into the water by a rip current.  

The National Weather Service Offices in Tallahassee, Florida, and Mobile, Alabama, have reported 191 fatalities related to rip currents in their region.

We will explain why are rip currents dangerous, so you can enjoy your ocean-side adventure.

What is a rip current?

By the time you’ve sighted a wave, it’s been building for hundreds of miles. The wind creates waves and they travel in deeper waters until they reach land or beach.

When the water gets shallow, it slows the waves down, causing them to steepen until they end up toppling over and breaking, typically against sandbars or a large pier. Surfers chase these waves, and they are topped with that foamy and white whitewater.

The wave will crash along a beach and then flow back offshore. And, now, you’ve got called rip currents

6 Reasons Why Rip Currents are Dangerous

We will cover why strong and narrow currents are dangerous and correct a few common misconceptions.

Pulls Away, Not Under

Rip currents don’t pull you under, regardless of what you hear. Instead, the dangerous undercurrent drags you out into the body of water and can force you beyond the beach, surf zone, and breaking waves. 

Can rip currents drown you?

While the strong current pulls you out and away from the beach, its mission is to drown you. First, it knocks your legs from underneath you. The temptation is to swim against it, but it will use all of the energy you need to survive. It’s the exhaustion and panic that will kill you.

Swim along the shoreline until you can pull yourself free and angle away from the current. Once free, swim at an angle away from the rip current toward the coastline.

The Speeds Vary (1 to 2 mph to 8 mph)

You can be the best swimmer in the world and not have the power to fight a rip current. You have no way of knowing how fast it is until it’s too late.

The speeds vary from second to second, which makes it more and more dangerous for someone to execute a rescue in the surf.

How far out can a rip current take you?

Conserving energy becomes vital because you can get swept out as far as 50 to 100 yards from the shore. 

Fatalities (100+ yearly)

It’s estimated that over 100 people die yearly in the US due to rip currents. And they were all avoidable.

Beach Safety Saves Lifeguards

Right at 80% of all beach rescues are due to rip currents. Putting yourself at risk puts the lifeguard that tries to save you at equal or greater risk.

A nice wave or deeper waters isn’t worth one life, much less two.

Human Chain Rescues Lead to a Multi-victim Event

Whether there is a lifeguard on duty or not, under zero circumstances should someone attempt a human chain rescue. 

A human chain rescue can go badly relatively quickly and puts every single person at risk of drowning due to expected water conditions. It will also strain emergency rescue services if it becomes a multi-victim scenario.

You Can’t Always See Rip Currents

Just because they’re not white-capped doesn’t mean they don’t exist. Rip currents aren’t always visible, but you can look for red flags.

  • Churning and choppy water in a channel
  • The water has got a weird and different color in a specific area.
  • The waves leave a line of foam or debris offshore at a steady pace.
  • You see a break in the wave pattern. 

Can you swim under a rip current?

A rip current is a shock whether you see it first or not. The first instinct is to fight it from every angle. 

But don’t try to swim under a current because there is no safety under it. Float mode is the safest way to wait it out and conserve energy to get back to short once the current has worn itself out.

Rip Currents Don’t Care About the Weather

Some people have heard the myth that rips currents only happen when the weather gets bad

It’s entirely false. A rip tide can choose violence at any time, rain or shine. Even waves of 2 or 3 feet high are a danger.

Why are rip currents dangerous?

  1. Rip currents pull you further and further away from shore.
  2. You can’t gauge the speed of a rip current.
  3. Over 100 people die every year.
  4. Rip current rescues put lifeguards at risk.
  5. Some currents are invisible.
  6. They can happen whether it’s sunny or stormy.

Protect Yourself and Family from Rip Current Dangers

  • Try your best to swim where lifeguards are present.
  • Talk to your lifeguard and ask about the water conditions. They typically know their stuff.
  • Just assume there is a rip current trying to murder your family.
  • Always keep in mind that swimming in the surf and swimming in the pool are different. 
  • Keep an eye out. While sometimes rip tides are invisible, sometimes you can see them coming.

If You See Someone Caught in a Current

  • Find a lifeguard
  • If none are present, immediately call 911.
  • Throw the rip current victim anything that floats. (lifejacket, inflatable tube)
  • If you go in, take a floatation device with you.
  • Keep the floatation between you and the person that’s in trouble. You do not want to drown trying to save someone else.

FAQs about Rip Currents

Do all beaches have rip currents?

Most lakes and rivers don’t have rip currents because they don’t have beaches where waves break. With that said, there are exceptions.
Large lakes like Lake Superior have breaking waves that develop rip currents.

How long does a rip current last?

The homicidal tendencies of a rip current can rage on for minutes to months.

What does a rip current do to you?

Rip currents rush at you from underneath the wave and knock your feet from underneath you. While a rip current doesn’t drag you under, it can drag you out 100 yards.

By Anita Brown

Anita Brown is our go-to contributor to our emergency preparedness website. Anita brings a wealth of personal experience and professional expertise to the table, having weathered several awful natural disasters. Anita is currently working towards obtaining her Community Emergency Response Team (CERT) certification.