Going by the number of lifeguard rescues, the biggest hazard at the beach—by far—is encountering a rip current. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), rip currents prompt more than 80% of rescues at surf beaches (i.e., any coastal areas where waves break).
Powerful channels of water that can rapidly pull swimmers away from the shore and out to sea, rip currents also account for over 100 drownings each year in the U.S., according to the United States Lifesaving Association.
And in recent years, that number has been ticking upward, topping 130 in 2021, per government data. By early July 2023, the year's total of rip current fatalities had already reached 57 in the U.S., with reports of dangerous conditions along the Gulf Coast in Alabama and Florida as well as nearly 200 rip-related lifeguard rescues in Virginia and North Carolina over the Independence Day holiday weekend alone.
Experts cite several reasons for the heightened risk—everything from a shortage of lifeguards (particularly on Florida's Gulf Coast) paired with higher numbers of beachgoers, to more intense storms and climate change (though NOAA is still looking into whether there's a connection between rip currents and warming waters, agency officials told USA Today).
Anyone planning to swim while at the beach should know about rip currents—how to spot them, how dangerous it can be to disregard posted warnings, and how to escape should you suddenly find yourself subject to the mighty pull of the sea.
What are rip currents and why are they so dangerous?
As the National Weather Service explains, rip currents are channels of water that flow from near the shore to past the point where waves break. Excess water can accumulate between crashing waves and the shore, so a rip current sometimes forms to shoot that water back to the deeper part of the ocean in a perpendicular line from the shore.
Swimmers caught in such a current are liable to get yanked far from dry land—sometimes well beyond the surf zone—and at alarming speed. Under certain conditions, rip currents have been clocked at more than 5 mph, which is faster than you can swim. Olympian Michael Phelps at his all-time zippiest managed just over 5.5 mph, and he's part dolphin.
One misconception about rip currents is that they pull you underwater. The National Weather Service contends that "there is no surf zone force that pulls people under the water." Instead, the danger with rip currents arises from getting pulled so far from shore that you can't get back to the beach because of panic, exhaustion, or lack of swimming skills. (In addition to objecting to the term "undertow," scientists dislike using "riptide" to describe the phenomenon since we're talking about a current here, not a tide. Tides follow long-term patterns and are governed by the sun and moon.)
Other myths about rip currents you shouldn't believe: that they only form in bad weather and amid big waves. On the contrary, rip currents may be present during sunny days and with waves only a couple feet high.
(Sign explaining beach warning flags | Credit: Paul Brennan / Shutterstock)
How do I know if there are rip currents present?
If you're at a beach where there are breaking waves, there's a possibility that rip currents may form. In the U.S., that includes seaside spots on the Atlantic and Pacific Coasts, areas abutting the Gulf of Mexico, and even beaches next to the Great Lakes. The same holds true anywhere else in the world with breaking waves—the Caribbean, Central America, South America, Europe, Africa, Asia, Australia, you name it. (The photo at the top of this page shows swimmers frighteningly close to a rip current on a beach near Auckland, New Zealand.)
Before you head for the sand, you can look up surf zone forecasts online to see weather projections. For U.S. beaches, the National Weather Service maintains an interactive map with up-to-date color-coded rip current outlooks for the entire country.
Ahead of international travel to beachy destinations where you intend to swim in the ocean, make it a habit to find out in advance if that can be done safely. Don't assume every seaside hotel neighbors swimmable waters. Ask when you're booking a stay and ask again about current conditions after you arrive.
Once you get to the beach, look for posted safety info and flag warnings about rip currents, and, by all means, heed those advisories, no matter how manageable the waves look and no matter how strong a swimmer you think you are.
In many places, flag warnings resemble the traffic-light system, with green for calm conditions, yellow for medium risk, and red for high risk. A double red flag usually means no swimming is allowed.
That said, flag warning systems may differ by location or may have other nuances, so it's important to read posted signs that explain what the various symbols and colors mean at the location where you are.
As for spotting rip currents for yourself from the shore, that can be tricky. But there are clues to watch out for, such as a gap of darker, calm-looking water flanked by churning waves or a line of seaweed and other debris traveling away from shore. You're more likely to spot the telltale signs from an elevated perch (such as atop a dune) if you can find one.
How do I stay safe from rip currents?
Pay attention to the warnings of posted signs and lifeguards. We can't stress this enough.
If at all possible, swim at lifeguarded beaches only. In addition to being trained to rescue swimmers from rip currents, lifeguards can fill you in on current safety conditions before you head into the water. Consider consulting the lifeguard before swimming and, again, follow the instructions you're given.
Learn how to swim in the surf. Waves, currents, saltwater, and other variables make swimming in the ocean different from dips in a pool or lake. Here are some tips for beginning ocean swimmers from a champion triathlete.
Don't swim alone. Especially if you're at a beach with no lifeguard on duty.
Keep your distance from piers and jetties. Rip currents tend to develop near any structures—sandbars too—that break up the waves.
(Plan for escaping a rip current | Credit: National Weather Service)
If I get caught in a rip current, how do I escape?
Stay calm. Though getting dragged out to sea by unseen forces is disquieting, remember that a rip current will not pull you under the water, so keep your wits and don't thrash and flail.
Don't try to swim against the current. Unless you can overpower the ocean—and you can't—you're going to exhaust yourself.
Move to the side. Try getting out of the rip current by swimming parallel to the shoreline. Once you feel free of the seaward pull, swim to shore at an angle away from the current.
If that doesn't work, float or tread water until the current releases you and you can swim back to shore (again, at an angle away from the current) or wave your arms and yell for help. This is where that lifeguard or friend back on shore with a cell phone to call 911 comes in handy.
By the way, if you're that friend back on land, make sure you don't wind up at the rip current's mercy too while you're trying to help someone. The safest bet is to get assistance from a lifeguard or other emergency services rather than going into the ocean yourself. If no other help is available, try shouting instructions from shore or entering the water with something that floats.