Escaping the rip: 'I remembered the RNLI's advice'

When Gary was caught in a rip current while surfing off Portrush East Strand, he remembered some RNLI safety advice. It saved his life.

Gary Hewitt surfing

To give you a bit of background: I’m quite a latecomer to surfing – I started 4 years ago, in my late 30s. I’d describe my skill level as ‘aspiring intermediate’. 

I’ve been aware of rip currents since I started surfing. And with experience, I’ve learned how to spot and avoid them. 

‘I tumbled head first’

Back in February, I went to the coast with my friend Andy. We have similar levels of experience and ability – the only difference was that I’d surfed this beach many more times than he had.

We ventured in about 2 hours after high tide. Despite the sun being out, it was a chilly day – just 4°C. The waves were 6–11ft high and there was a breeze blowing. There were some absolute bombs going off, with 30-40-ft-long sections of water regularly breaking. 

While we were getting ready, Andy and I talked about the conditions and agreed to stick to the white water. Bigger waves were forming further out, which would break and reform nearer the beach in smaller 4–5ft waves. This seemed more manageable for us.

The session was going well and we were both catching some nice waves. After 40 minutes, I lined up for a wave and started paddling. Suddenly, the wave peaked a bit bigger than I’d expected. I pearled, so the nose of my board was driven underwater, and I tumbled head first. 

‘I realised I was being pulled out to sea’

Surfer Gary Hewitt in the water with his board

As I came to the surface, I realised I was being pulled out to sea. I grabbed my leash and pulled my board towards me.

As I got back on, another wave broke. I had to dive deep to avoid catching it on the head. As I came up again, I realised I’d been pulled further out, past the impact zone where the clean waves were breaking.

I was out with the more experienced surfers, further than I felt comfortable with, and still heading out to sea. My trusty wetsuit had also had a good flushing and was now full of water.

Then I remembered the RNLI’s advice about what to do if you’re caught in a rip – the first thing was not to panic. I started to paddle parallel to the shore, constantly checking my position and progress against two points on the land.

My breathing was calm and well-timed with each wave. When I paddled, it was a steady and deliberate pace, making each stroke count.

I was now in another impact zone, with huge green waves beginning to bear down on me.

‘The waves would drag me along the water’

As I paddled parallel with the beach, I tried to keep an eye on Andy and reassure him I was OK.  

I was looking for a broken wave so I could catch some white water back to the safety of the shallows. But I couldn’t catch any of the huge green waves – I lacked the confidence to commit.

After paddling for about 50ft, I had cleared the rip. But now I was well and truly in the main impact zone. I had to ditch my board a few times and dive deep to avoid the impact of the powerful waves. I wouldn’t normally lose control of my board, as there’s a risk of it hitting someone. But, as there was nobody downstream from me, it felt safe to do so. 

The waves would break and drag me along underwater. And when the pull relented, I’d return to the surface, grab my board and continue to paddle on a curved course towards the beach.  

Eventually a wave broke behind me and I rode a nice white water wave all the way to the beach. I got off my board and stood knee-high in the water – the legs of my wetsuit were bulging with all the water I’d shipped! 

I looked for Andy and gave him a thumbs-up before starting to wade over to warn him of the rip. No warning was needed – he’d seen what happened.

What I learned that day

Gary Hewitt surfing

There were a few lessons I took home from my experience:

  1. Making sure my equipment is in good condition: My wetsuit was old and had a hole mid-thigh that shipped a log of water. It had been repaired a few times, but was not watertight. This made my suit heavier and the paddle more difficult.
  2. Never surfing alone: I had my friend Andy there and there were other surfers in the water. The ‘what if’ thoughts raced through my head afterwards and if I had been alone and had run out of gas, I wouldn’t be here to talk about it
  3. Making the right choices: Get out when it gets a bit too wild! When the conditions are like that, there is a lot of water moving around. And with all those waves crashing shoreward, the water needed to return back to sea. The sea state was a bit confused so the usual visual signs of a rip were masked (it’s normally an area where the waves aren’t breaking). 

Has it put me off surfing? Absolutely not – I went back in the next day. I was very mindful about what had happened but felt more confident in my ability.

Stay safe while you surf

  • Always surf between the black and white flags.
  • Always wear your leash and hold onto your board if you get into trouble – it will help you float.
  • Even experienced surfers can get into difficulty. Consider how you would best signal for help from the water.
  • Always surf with a mate, especially in big swell. Surfers look out for one another.
  • It is easy to be caught out. Don’t challenge yourself too early, and know your limits.
  • Check the local forecast for wind, tide and swell.

Before you head out to catch a few waves, check out the rest of our surfing advice.