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Rip Currents Icon

Rip Currents

Rip currents are channeled currents of water flowing away from shore. They typically extend from the shoreline, through the surf zone, and past the line of breaking waves. Rip currents can occur at any beach with breaking waves, including the Great Lakes.

diagram of a rip current
Diagram of a rip current

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 more powerful rip currents continue to push hundreds of yards offshore.

Rip currents can cause emotional distress, panic, contusions/abrasions, internal/external injuries, suffocation and death due to drowning. The United States Lifesaving Association attributes 80 percent of all surf zone rescues to rip currents.

A daily rip current outlook is included in the Surf Zone Forecast, which is issued by many coastal National Weather Service offices. A three-tiered structure of "low", "moderate", or "high" is used to describe the rip current risk. This outlook is communicated to lifeguards, emergency managers, media and the general public.

aerial view of a rip current
Aerial view of rip current

If caught in a rip current:

  • Stay calm.

  • Don’t fight the current.

  • Escape the current by swimming in a direction following the shoreline. When free of the current, swim at an angle – away from the current – toward shore.

  • If you are unable to escape by swimming, float or tread water.

  • When the current weakens, swim at an angle away from the current toward shore.

  • If at any time you feel you will be unable to reach shore, draw attention to yourself: Face the shore, call or wave for help.

Rip current poster

Rip current poster
How to help someone else without becoming a victim:
  • Get help from a lifeguard.
  • If a lifeguard is not present, yell instructions on how to escape.
  • If possible, throw the rip current victim something that floats.
  • Call 9-1-1 for further assistance.
  • When you arrive at the beach, ask lifeguards about rip currents and any other hazards that may be present.

Additional Resources
With increasing coastal populations, rip currents will continue to be a serious hazard at surf beaches. The Web site is designed to provide educational material as well as real time information about rip current risks. A rip current brochure and rip current beach sign are also available.

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