With summer in full swing and hurricane season in full force—as well as a series of storms being projected to cross paths with the coast of North Carolina in the coming days and weeks—it’s important to understand the dangers of rip currents on the Outer Banks and to find out what you can do to keep both yourself and your family safe at the beach this year. Whether you’re an experienced swimmer and think you have nothing to worry about while you’re riding the waves or you’re already cautious about venturing into the surf and want to be well aware of the risks posed by the water, taking a few minutes to learn what causes rip currents, how to spot them in the ocean and what to do if you’re caught in a rip current could ultimately save your life.
What is a Rip Current?
Every year, rip currents claim the lives of dozens of people swimming along the coastlines of picturesque beaches around the world—and the Outer Banks is no exception. Frequently found along the shorelines of the Atlantic Ocean, Pacific Ocean, Gulf of Mexico, rip currents are extremely powerful channels of fast-moving water that pull water away from the edge of the beach and out into the ocean. These narrow channels flow perpendicular to the shoreline and most often form around breaks in sandbars and near structures such as fishing piers, groins and jetties.
According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), rip currents typically reach speeds of 1 to 2 feet per second—meaning a swimmer caught in a rip current will be pulled 1 to 2 feet away from the shoreline and into the open ocean every second—but the dangerous currents have also been measured at speeds as fast as 8 feet per second, which the coastal agency says is faster than any Olympic swimmer ever recorded.
The U.S. Lifesaving Association estimates that as many as 80 percent of all rescues at ocean beaches are the result of swimmers being swept out to sea by these strong, localized surface currents—and approximately 100 people die each year when they get caught in a rip current and ultimately drown while trying to escape. Learning how to spot a rip current so you can avoid swimming in the area is key to protect yourself from becoming one of these statistics and will help prevent a crisis from occurring the next time you hit the beaches of the Outer Banks for some fun in the sun.
When Do Rip Currents Form?
Think rip currents only occur when the surf is rough or when the water is already churned up from coastal storm systems passing offshore? Think again. Rip currents can form in the water at any time—including when the ocean is seemingly calm on a deceptively bright and sunny day. According to NOAA, multiple rip currents of various sizes and speeds can develop in the water when wave activity is slight, and during periods of heavy wave action beachgoers will actually find fewer—but more concentrated—rip currents forming in the surf zone. Coastal scientists warn swimmers that spontaneous rip currents can form on any given day with no notice, so don’t be deceived into thinking the ocean is safe to swim in just because it appears to be calm on the surface.
In addition to being just as cautious about the presence of rip currents on the Outer Banks during calm days with minimal wave action as you are during days when the surf is rough and the development of rip currents seems more likely, you should also be on high alert for rip currents that materialize during periods of low tide. Although they are not directly caused by tide changes, rip currents frequently form along the beach during low tide—and these rip currents can prove to be even more dangerous to swimmers than rip currents that occur during high tide because the ocean water is already being sucked out to sea as the tide goes out.
How to Spot a Rip Current
So how do you spot a rip current so you know when to avoid wading out into the water? Because individual rip currents can vary dramatically in size and speed due to a variety of factors—such as wave conditions, tide changes and the shape of the beach upon which the surf is breaking—spotting a rip current is sometimes rather easy for people who know what to look for, but oftentimes the potentially deadly channel of fast-flowing water goes completely unnoticed by unsuspecting swimmers spending a day along the shoreline.
In some cases, the exact location in which a rip current exists under the surface may actually be the same spot that appears to be the calmest place among the waves, luring many beachgoers who looking for a “safe” place to swim right into the treacherous current and catching them completely off guard. According to coastal hazards specialists, rip currents that are situated above a deep channel in a sandbar look like a calm patch of water when you’re standing on the beach or just inside the shallows. Don’t be fooled by this deceptively smooth area that is tucked between areas full of breaking waves to the right and left of it. And to truly play is safe this season, when you can’t quite tell if a rip current is present, take the old adage of “when in doubt, don’t go out” to heart.
If you do plan to swim in the ocean this summer, the U.S. Lifesaving Association advises beachgoers to look for a variety of characteristics of the surf that could signal a rip current is waiting right off the shoreline. One of the biggest indicators that a rip current is present is a narrow streak of muddy or sandy water in a certain spot that can often be seen from the beach or as you step into the waves. When a rip current is strong enough, the fast-moving water flowing churns up the sand along the ocean floor and drags it through the channel. Rip currents that disrupt the incoming ocean waves and stir up the sand and sediment on the seafloor are typically severe and therefore extremely dangerous—but because of this they can also sometimes be spotted from a distance, so keep an eye out for areas where no waves are breaking and the water appears to be muddy, and then avoid swimming in that location altogether.
Just as swaths of the ocean’s surface that appear unusually calm compared to the wave action in surrounding spots can indicate that the seemingly smooth patch is actually a rip current, areas where the water is choppy, is a different color of water than the rest of the water around it, or that consists of a line of debris such as foam or seaweed can also be the sites of rip currents of varying degrees of severity. While a properly trained eye can easily recognize many of these situations when they occur to such a degree that they are visible from the shoreline, the U.S. Lifesaving Association cautions swimmers to remain aware of the fact that rip currents don’t all show up in the same manner—and that even if none of the above situations can be spotted in the sea, deadly rip currents can still be present around you.
Before you venture into the ocean for a day of fun in the sun swimming in the surf this summer, stop by the lifeguard stationed on the beach you’re visiting to find out the risk of rip currents in your area or any other dangerous conditions you need to be aware of that day. These first responders are specially trained to watch for the spontaneous development of rip currents as well as rapid changes in the risk level presented by swimming in the ocean on any given day. And to further eliminate your risk of being swept out to sea in a rip current, never swim in the ocean—or even wade in the shallows—on days when yellow caution flags or red “no swimming” flags are flying.
What to Do if You’re Caught in a Rip Current
If you’re swimming in the ocean and get caught in a rip current, chances are it will happen so quickly that you won’t have time to react until you’ve already been swept a significant distance away from the shore. The key to surviving a rip current is to stay calm, refrain from panicking, and swim parallel to the shoreline (to the north or south of where you are) to escape the grip of the rip. The majority of swimmers who fall victim to these deadly currents ultimately drown from fatigue because too much energy is spent attempting to fight the current and paddle straight back to the shore.
Despite how far the rip current may have swept you out to sea, do not panic once you realize what’s happening. Remain calm and clearheaded, signal for help if you are able to, and swim sideways out of the current—not right back into the flow of water moving at speeds that could push you several feet further offshore every single second. Although some currents are so strong swimmers can be carried hundreds of yards offshore, according to NOAA, most rip currents are not more than 80 feet wide and dissipate just beyond the breaking waves. If you are unable to break out of the current and swim parallel to the shoreline right away, stay calm and allow the current to carry you until it dissipates—then paddle parallel to the shoreline and away from the current before swimming back to the beach at an angle.
For years, rip currents have been incorrectly referred to as “riptides” or the “undertow,” causing many people to mistakenly believe that getting caught in a rip current means they will be pulled under the surface of the water and swept out to sea. Unlike riptides—which are a specific type of swift current that flows through inlets, harbors and the mouths of estuaries—and the undertow, which refers to a current that pulls swimmers down along the bottom of the seafloor, rip currents are surface currents that pull you straight out into the ocean but not underneath the water. A strong rip current can quickly knock you off your feet when it strikes in shallow water; however, you will most likely not be dragged under the surface of the ocean unless you panic, thrash around in the waves and end up disoriented. When you’re caught in a rip current, relax your body and allow the current to keep you near the surface until you can safely swim parallel to the shoreline and save yourself from this potentially deadly force of nature.
Regardless of how experienced you may be when it comes to swimming, rip currents are incredibly powerful and must be taken extremely seriously by beachgoers. According to the U.S. Lifesaving Association, your chances of drowning at a beach with a lifeguard present are just 1 in 18 million, so avoid swimming in the ocean at beaches that don’t offer the protection of professional lifeguards or ocean rescue teams—and make sure you only venture into the surf during the times of day when lifeguards are on duty. If you educate yourself on the dangers of rip currents on the Outer Banks, stay aware of your surroundings at all times, and respect the power of the ocean, this year’s summer vacation on the barrier islands off the coast of North Carolina will be one you’ll remember forever for all the right reasons.