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  • Marion Esterhuizen

BEACH SAFETY- RIP CURRENTS - KNOW YOUR OPTIONS

Updated: Apr 11


Rip currents on the Dolphin coast are a hidden danger. Learn the facts to keep safe

What is a rip current?


Rip currents are channelled currents of water flowing away from the shoreline at beaches. They typically extend from near the shoreline, through the surf zone (area between the high tide level on the beach to the seaward side of the breaking waves) and past the line of breaking waves. It is important to know your options when trying to escape a rip current.


How do rip currents form?


Rip currents form when waves break near the shoreline, piling up water between the breaking waves and the beach. One of the ways this water returns to the sea is to form a rip current, a narrow stream of water moving swiftly away from shore, often perpendicular to the shoreline.


How big are rip currents?


Rip currents can be as narrow as 10 – 20 feet in width though they may be up to 10 times wider. The length of a rip current also varies. Rip currents begin to slow down as they move offshore, beyond the breaking waves, but sometimes extend for hundreds of feet beyond the surf line.

identify the danger zone by observing the shape of the surface waves

How fast are rip currents?


Rip current speeds can vary. Sometimes they are too slow to be considered dangerous. However, under certain wave, tide and beach shape conditions, the speeds can quickly turn dangerous. Rip currents have been measured to exceed 8 km per hour, slower than you can run but faster than an Olympic swimmer can swim.


Are all rip currents dangerous?


Rip currents are present on many beaches every day of the year, but they are usually too slow to be dangerous to beachgoers. However, under certain wave, tide and beach shape conditions, they can increase to dangerous speeds. The strength and speed of a rip current will likely increase as wave height and wave period increase.


Are rip currents and undertows different?


Rip currents are not “undertow” or “riptides”. These are obsolete terms. In some areas, people have used the term undertow to describe the combination of being knocked down, pulled out, and submerged due to a lack of swimming ability and/or lack of knowing what to do to escape. This is where the myth formed that a rip current pulls you underwater. A rip current pulls you out, not under.


The calm surface area reveals a deadly rip current underneath the waves

Why do some people use terms like runouts and rip tides when you are calling them rip currents?



These terms, though once commonly used in certain regions or historically, are now considered to be incorrect. The National Weather Service, Sea Grant and the USLA are working together to use consistent terminology to provide a clear rip current safety message to the public.

Where should I look for rip currents?


Rip currents can be found on many beaches every day. 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 occur at any beach with breaking waves, including the Great Lakes.


How do rip currents result in the drowning of swimmers?


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. Rip currents are the greatest surf zone hazard to all beachgoers. They can sweep even the strongest swimmer out to sea. Rip currents are particularly dangerous for weak and non-swimmers. Ballito beaches have provided floating devices that can be used when a swimmer is pulled out by a rip current. If you notice a swimmer in distress, please alert the lifeguards. Never swim at non-swimming beaches as these are not manned and will take too long for assistance. Kwa-Zulu Natal North Coast is well known for its rip currents, which take many lives each year.

Teach your family what to do if they get caught in a rip current

How can I identify a rip current?


Signs that a rip current is present are very subtle and difficult for the average beachgoers to identify. Look for differences in the colour of the water, the surface motion, incoming wave shape or breaking point compared to adjacent conditions. Look for any of these clues:


  • Channel of churning, choppy water.

  • The area has a notable difference in the colour of the water.

  • Line of foam, seaweed, or debris moving steadily seaward.

  • A clear break in the incoming wave pattern.

  • One, all or none of the clues may be visible.

Stay safe with these safety tips from North Coast Holiday Homes

How can people avoid Rip Current problems?

  • Learn to swim

  • If you’ll be in the surf, learn to swim in the surf. It is not the same as a pool or lake.

  • Never swim alone.

  • Swim in a designated area that has lifeguards

  • Check with lifeguards before swimming

  • Obey all instructions provided by lifeguards

  • If in doubt, don’t go out!!


What can people do if caught in a rip current?

  • Try to remain calm and conserve energy

  • Don’t fight the current

  • Think of it like a treadmill you can’t turn off. You want to step to the side of it.

  • Swim across the current in a direction following the shoreline

  • When out of the current, swim and angle away from the current and towards shore

  • If you can’t escape this, try to float, or calmly tread water. Rip current strength eventually subsides off shore.

  • If at any time you feel you will be unable to reach shore, wave your arms and yell for help.

Learn the basics before you go to the beach.

How can I assist others who are caught in a rip current?

  • If you see someone in trouble, get help from a lifeguard

  • If no lifeguard is available call emergency numbers

  • Throw the rip current victim something that floats – life jacket, cooler or ball

  • Yell instructions on how to escape

  • Many have died trying to save others. Don’t become a victim!

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