The Differences Between 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.

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 current.

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

Stay afloat, which should happen naturally, and try to signal for help. Swim parallel to the current if you can.

If not, look for whitewater, as it suggests that the water is shallow, allowing you to plant your feet.

If all of this fails, just let it take you until it stops and then swim back to shore.

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 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.

However, an undertow will not drag you out into deep water in the same way that a rip current will.

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

General Advice

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

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.

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.

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