Rip Currents

Rip Current Diagram

For Today's Rip Current Conditions check:

http://www.weather.gov/ilm/BeachRip

Color Code Definition

Many of us at UNCW came here in part because of UNCW’s proximity to the ocean. Whether you surf, swim, or sunbathe, the beach is a fun place to go after work and on the weekends. However, the ocean can also be dangerous and you should be aware of rip current hazards.

Common at beaches in North Carolina, rip currents are channelized currents of water flowing away from the shore that typically form at breaks in sandbars and near structures such as jetties and piers. Many rip currents end just beyond the line of breaking waves but some may continue to pull hundreds of yards off shore at speeds of up to eight feet per second. Because rip currents can rapidly increase in speed, they can unexpectedly pull swimmers away from shore very quickly. Even strong swimmers can get tired trying to swim against a rip current.

UNCW is a member of the Rip Current Awareness Strategies Team (RCAST) sponsored by the National Weather Service (NWS). As part of RCAST’s mission to educate the public about the dangers of rip currents, UNCW EH&S offers a Rip Current Awareness training session upon request. To register call ext. 23057.

Why Rip Currents are Dangerous

Rip currents are the leading surf hazard for all beach goers. They are particularly dangerous for weak or non-swimmers. Rip current speeds are typically 1-2 feet per second. However, speeds as high as 8 feet per second have been measured - this is faster than an Olympic swimmer can sprint! Thus, rip currents can sweep even the strongest swimmer out to sea.
Over 100 drownings are due to rip currents occur every year in the United States. More than 80% of water rescues on surf beaches are due to rip currents.

Rip currents can occur at any surf beach with breaking waves, including the Great Lakes.

Rip currents can cause emotional distress, panic, contusions / abrasions, internal / external injuries, suffocation and death due to drowning.

When Rip Currents Form

Rip currents can be found on many surf beaches every day. Under most tide and sea conditions the speeds are relatively slow. However, under certain wave, tide, and beach profile conditions the speeds can quickly increase to become dangerous to anyone entering the surf. The strength and speed of a rip current will likely increase as wave height and wave period increase.They are most likely to be dangerous during high surf conditions as the wave height and wave period increase.

Where Rip Currents Form

Rip currents most typically form at low spots or breaks in sandbars, and also near structures such as groins, jetties and piers. Rip currents can be very narrow or extend in widths to hundreds of yards. The seaward pull of rip currents varies: sometimes the rip current ends just beyond the line of breaking waves, but sometimes rip currents continue to push hundreds of yards offshore.

How to Identify Rip Currents

Look for any of these clues:

  • a channel of churning, choppy water
  • an area having a notable difference in water color
  • a line of foam, seaweed, or debris moving steadily seaward
  • a break in the incoming wave pattern

None, one, or more of the above clues may indicate the presence of rip currents. Rip currents are often not readily or easily identifiable to the average beachgoer. For your safety, be aware of this major surf zone hazard. Polarized sunglasses make it easier to see the rip current clues provided above.

How to Avoid and Survive Rip Currents - Learn how to swim!

  • Never swim alone.
  • Be cautious at all times, especially when swimming at unguarded beaches. If in doubt, don’t go out!
  • Whenever possible, swim at a lifeguard protected beach.
  • Obey all instructions and orders from lifeguards.
  • If caught in a rip current, remain calm to conserve energy and think clearly.
  • Don’t fight the current. Swim out of the current in a direction following the shoreline. When out of the current, swim towards shore.
  • If you are unable to swim out of the rip current, float or calmly tread water. When out of the current, swim towards shore.
  • If you are still unable to reach shore, draw attention to yourself: face the shore, wave your arms, and yell for help.
  • If you see someone in trouble, get help from a lifeguard. If a lifeguard is not available, have someone call 9-1-1 . Throw the rip current victim something that floats and yell instructions on how to escape. Remember, many people drown while trying to save someone else from a rip current.

Rip Current Myth

A rip current is a horizontal current. Rip currents do not pull people under the water–-they pull people away from shore. Drowning deaths occur when people pulled offshore are unable to keep themselves afloat and swim to shore. This may be due to any combination of fear, panic, exhaustion, or lack of swimming skills.

In some regions rip currents are referred to by other, incorrect terms such as rip tides and undertow. We encourage exclusive use of the correct term – rip currents. Use of other terms may confuse people and negatively impact public education efforts.

Green Flag Low hazard. Conditions are calm. Normal care and caution should be exercised.
Yellow Flag Medium hazard. Moderate surf and/or currents are present. Weak swimmers are discouraged from entering the water. For others, enhanced care and caution should be exercised.
Red Flag High hazard. Rough conditions such as strong surf and/or currents are present. All swimmers are discouraged from entering the water. Those entering the water should take great care. Wind and/or wave conditions are expected to support the development of very strong rip currents. This category implies that water conditions are life threatening to all people who enter the surf. There may be a high number of rescues on red flag days.
Double Red Water is closed to public use.
Quartered (black and white) These flags will be used in pairs to indicate the boundaries of a designated area where surfboards are prohibited.

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