How to get out of a rip current

Rip currents are a major cause of accidental drowning all around the world and the top environmental cause of our lifeguard incidents. So what are rips, how can you spot them and - if you ever find yourself caught in one - what can you do?

How to get out of a rip current

Photo: RNLI/Nigel Millard

Rips are powerful currents caused by waves breaking on shallow sandbars and then pushing water back out to sea through deeper channels. Sandbars are submerged or partly exposed ridges of sand that are built up by the action of tides and waves.

People can easily get caught out by rip currents because, to an untrained eye, they can look like a calmer place to enter the water.

There are several indicators of rip currents that you can look out for:

  • darker patches in the water beside shallower sandbars
  • rippled or churned water without breaking waves (as shown in the centre of the photo above)
  • formation of foam
  • bits of debris floating out to sea
  • and brown discoloured water where the sand beneath has been disturbed.

We've been teaching young people aged 7-14 how to spot and free themselves from rip currents through our summertime Swim Safe programme with Swim England.

In 2016 we reached 7,059 children with our water safety sessions. The same advice we give to them applies to all of us as we enjoy the water this summer.

Diagram of a rip current

Five steps to escaping rip currents

1. Avoid them, where possible

Always swim between the flags and on lifeguarded beaches. Flags are marked based on where is safer to swim in the present conditions.

How to escape a rip current, avoid them if possible

Photo: RNLI/Andy Perryman

2. Alert others

If you’re struggling in a rip current, always raise your hand and shout for help. Even if you feel able to get out of it, it pays to have others ready to help.

Keep hold of anything that floats such as a bodyboard or surfboard.

How to escape a rip current, alert others

Photo: RNLI/Andy Perryman

3. Don’t exhaust yourself

If you try to swim against the force of a rip you’ll lose energy very quickly. Stay calm and float to assess the situation.

How to escape a rip current, don't exhaust yourself

Photo: RNLI/Andy Perryman

4. How deep is the water?

If you are able to stand, wade out of the current, don’t swim. Rips can flow at 4-5mph, which is faster than an Olympic swimmer!

How to escape a rip current, how deep is the water

Photo: RNLI/Andy Perryman

5. Swim parallel

If the water is too deep to stand and you can swim, swim across the direction of the current, parallel to the shore, until you are free. Use any breaking waves to help you get back to the beach.

If you need to catch your breath first, relax and float for around 60-90 seconds. Some rip currents recirculate rather than flow out to sea and may bring you closer to shore.

How to escape a rip current, swim parallel

Photo: RNLI/Andy Perryman

What if someone else is in trouble in the water?

How to recognise there is a problem

The first challenge is to recognise that they are in difficulty. People might struggle to rescue themselves before calling for help and, if they are drowning, they will be unable to do either. The signs can easily go unnoticed.

Learn how to recognise the signs of drowning.

How to save a life

Secondly, while instinct and selflessness can spur people to run in to help, do not enter the water. You may escalate the situation and you could lose your own life or put other people’s lives at risk if you do. There are steps you can take to help someone without risking additional lives.

Learn how to rescue someone from drowning.

‘It’s alright buddy, I’ve got you’

When RNLI Lifeguard Joby Wolfenden-Brown rescued a frightened young bodyboarder from a rip current, the rescue footage went viral.

Watch the video here and read more about this rescue in our interview with Joby.

Want to know more?