The Differences Between Rip Currents, Undertows, and Rip Tides

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As Hawaiians say, “Never turn your back on the ocean.”

The phrase was made popular by Duke Kahanamoku who wanted visitors to the ocean to stay safe and respect the ocean.

These words ring true for all players in the ocean including surfers.

Sneaker Wave in Coos Bay, Oregon

An example of why you should be aware of the ocean and what is happening around you.

Surfing & Rip Currents, Undertows, and Rip Tides

Surfing is a dangerous sport. Countless amateur and professional surfers have been killed over the years and many more have been seriously injured and even maimed.

Of all the hazards that surfers need to worry about, including sharks, jellyfish, and reefs, some of the most dangerous are the currents that threaten to drag them into deeper oceans or tire them out as they fight for their lives.

There are three main currents that you need to worry about as a surfer or swimmer: rip currents, rip tides, and undertows, and in this guide, we’ll address all of them.

What are Rip Currents?

When breaking waves send water up the face of the beach, it starts looking for its level as it tries to escape out to sea.

If the water is allowed to escape easily, rip currents can form, pulling the water and anyone unfortunate enough to be caught within it

They often occur in knee-high or waist-high water and while they are only a few dozen feet across, it is possible for multiple rip currents to form at the same time.

Can you survive a rip current?

Yes, you can. Preparation and staying calm are your best friends when it comes to surviving rip currents.

Rip currents take hundreds of lives every year and are thought to be responsible for more than 100,000 lifeguard rescues.

If you find yourself caught in a rip current, it’s important not to try swimming against it.

The current will move faster than you can swim, and fighting will just tire you out.

It doesn’t matter how strong or capable you think you are, as even an Olympic swimmer isn’t going to out-swim a rip current.

This is actually how most drownings occur, as individuals become exhausted from fighting against the current.

How do you get out of a rip current?

  • Most importantly, stay calm. That is easier said than done when you are being swept out to sea, be that as it may, you need to stay calm.
  • Stay afloat and try to signal for help. Tread water if you must
  • Swim parallel to the current / the beach.
  • Once you are no longer being pushed out to sea, you have broken out of the rip current and can now swim directly to shore.
  • DO. NOT. GIVE. UP.

How far can rip currents take you?

How far rip currents can take you depends on how wide they are and how fast they travel.

There is no set distance as to how far rip currents can take you.

How Wide Can Rip Currents Get?

Rips currents are typically not wider than 50 feet, but can be as wide as 200 feet.

You should be able to break out of the rip current within a minute or two depending on how fast you swim and your level of calm.

How Fast Can Rip Currents Travel?

They can move at a rate of eight feet per second. Faster than an Olympic swimmer.

How does a rip current look?

Here are some ways to help identify a rip current.

  • Typically you don’t see wave breaking where the rip current is running
  • Rip currents frequently run parallel to rock jetties and/or between the notches in rock jetties
  • Rip currents look like a river running out to sea. They look like they have different texture than the water on either side of them
  • You may see debris floating out to see on top of the rip current

What are Rip Tides?

Rip tides are very strong currents triggered as the tide drags water through an inlet and toward the ocean.

They are common in the presence of jetties and big waves but can also occur in lagoons and bays where there are no such waves.

Also known as tidal jets, rip tides transport sizeable quantities of sand and can form sandbanks.

What is the difference between rip current and riptide?

Rip currents occur at the beach and are caused by the need of incoming water to find a way back out to sea.

Rip tides occur at the beach, a bay or another constricted area of water and is caused by the tide pulling water out to sea.

They may feel similar to a swimmer, surfer or kayaker, but the origins are different.

What are Undertows?

Undertows are caused by big waves breaking on the beach and creating a mixture of wave and sand that is sent into the next breaking wave.

The waves break over the heads of swimmers and surfers and they may feel like they are being rocked by the backwash flow.

Are Rip Currents And Undertows The Same?

No, rip currents and undertows are not the same.

An undertow may drag you into the next wave that breaks on the shore depending on how big the waves are, how the slope of the beach meets the water and if the tide is high.

You won’t get carried away with an undertow like you would by a rip current or rip tide, but you may still get pounded by the broken shore break which has its own painful consequences.

Caution is still advised, though, as undertows can be dangerous for small children.

General Advice: Rip Currents, Undertows, & Rip Tides

The aforementioned advice will help you to stay in control if you ever find yourself caught in an ocean current of any kind.

However, it’s also important that you never venture out alone.

Always take someone with you or make sure there is a lifeguard on duty.

Simply being a strong swimmer isn’t always enough to save you and may give you a false sense of security.

Fatalities occur among all age groups and in swimmers and surfers of all experience levels.

So, remember to stay calm.

Whether you’re in shallow water or deep water; Hawaii or California; summer or winter, it’s always important to take someone with you and avoid treacherous conditions.