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Dr Rip’s Science of the Surf

Can you spot the rip at Stanwell Park? Photo courtesy Rob Brander.

The South Coaster presents your annual rip current survival guide, by Dr Rob Brander.

It’s Summer and time for my annual Rip Current Survival Guide. Rips are the biggest hazard on Australian beaches causing more fatalities each year on average than bushfires, cyclones, floods and sharks combined and this year won’t be any different. There will be far too many unnecessary rip current drownings and tens of thousands of people getting rescued in them. There are 17,000 rips on Australian beaches at any given time and there are many unpatrolled beaches. Do you know how to spot a rip? If the answer is ‘No’ and you swim outside of the flags, then you must read this article.

What are rips?

Rips are rivers of the sea that carry water brought towards the beach by breaking waves back offshore. They start close to the shoreline and flow at different angles offshore, often in deeper channels between sand bars. Most rips are about 5-20 metres wide and occur every 100-200 metres along the beach. Rips flow at speeds faster than most people can swim and can suddenly pulse (after wave sets break) for 30 seconds or so at Olympic swimmer speeds. They always flow faster a few hours before and after low tide. Rips will flow offshore to the limit of breaking waves where they may either re-circulate back towards the beach, or head offshore another 20-50 metres. Their flow behaviour is very unpredictable.

What do rips look like?

Most beach rips are fixed in place by channels and bars and can stay in the same spot for days or weeks. As they are in deeper water, the water looks darker with less waves breaking. Always spend five minutes looking for dark gaps, almost like paths, heading offshore between areas of whitewater.
When it comes to rips, “white is nice, green is mean”. Also look along the beach for large bowls, or embayments, carved into the sandy shoreline by rips. There are almost always persistent rips against reefs and headlands.
The water surface in rips also looks a bit bumpy, rippled and disturbed and there’s often clouds of sand heading offshore of the breakers.

What should you do if you get caught in one?

Don’t panic – rips won’t pull you under, take you to New Zealand or into shark-infested waters; they just take you for a ride. Stay afloat, relax and signal for help from the lifeguards or surfers.
If you are a good swimmer, swim towards lots of whitewater where it’s shallower, you may be able to stand up and the breaking waves will help bring you back to the beach. Whatever you do, keep reassessing the situation, conserve energy if you feel tired and don’t swim directly back to the beach against the rip. For YouTube videos and pictures of rips, please explore www.scienceofthesurf.com

Have a question for Dr Rip? Visit www.scienceofthesurf.com.

Christmas tip: Dr Rip’s Essential Beach Book is a great gift for your ocean-going loved ones. Buy the book here.