Most days on most beaches, the waves roll in at a bit of angle. This means that the water is constantly pushed in one direction, and rip currents are relatively rare.
However, sometimes the waves hit the beach face-on. When this happens, some of the currents push left and right and create what is known as a long-shore current (running parralel to the shore). When two of these meet at the same point, or when one hits an obstacle like a jetty of rocky outrop, they turn back out to sea forming a powerful rip current.
A rip current isn't a downward suction. It is simply a strong current that will take even the best swimmers further out to sea.
Be warned that few rip currents exhibit all of the following traits, and some can exhibit none. However, these are useful guidelines to keep in mind:
- Fewer breaking waves - the most common feature of a rip current is the lack of breaking waves. If you see a strange flatter patch of water, with waves either side, it could signal a rip below the surface. The surface could also be unusually rippled and look different to the surrounding sea.
- Darker coloured water - the strong forces of a rip current can dig out a deeper channel in the sand, and rip currents naturally look for the path of least resistance.
- Dirty, foamy or sandy water - it's not just swimmers that rip currents pull out to sea. The strong currents dredge up sand and other matter, so if you see a patch of muddy or discoloured water, with foam heading out to sea, that could well be a rip current.
- Obstacles pointing out to sea - features like jetties, sand banks, or rocky outcrops catch longshore currents and turn them out to sea causing a rip current to form.
Click here to view a photo gallery of rip currents (external site)
How do I escape a rip current?
Do you have any other tips? Let us know in the comments below!