Don't Get Sucked In By The Rip This Summer

On average 21 people drown each year in rip currents on Australian surf beaches.

This value exceeds the long-term annual average of fatalities caused by bush fires, floods, cyclones and sharks combined. So how can beachgoers keep safe this summer?

Note: this story was originally posted in late 2014, but with record temperatures across parts of the country today, serves as a timely reminder. Stay safe out there guys!

Rip currents are strong, narrow, often channelised seaward flows that transport water brought onshore by breaking waves back offshore. They are ubiquitous features on Australian beaches with an estimated 17,000 present at any given time.

Many unsuspecting bathers quickly find themselves out of their depth, considerable distances offshore, where their initial reaction is often to swim back to the safety of the beach, against the rip current flow.

The strength of the current, combined with a sense of being out of control and fear of the unknown can quickly lead to the onset of panic and, in far too many instances, drowning.

Rips: A Silent Killer

Only 4% of Australia’s 11,000 beaches are patrolled by lifeguards and lifesavers and virtually all rip current drownings occur on unpatrolled beaches or outside of patrol times.

Almost all of Australia’s rip related drownings occur outside lifeguard patrol areas. Andy Polaine

In these areas and at these times, whether or not a person makes a safe and correct choice of swimming location is based solely on knowledge or luck. Unfortunately, recent research has shown that beachgoers have a poor knowledge of rip currents.

There is also an element of complacency of the severity of the rip hazard by the general public and media. Unlike low frequency, high magnitude hazards such as bush fires, which can claim large numbers of lives in a single event, rip currents are almost always present and rarely result in more than one fatality at a time.

As such, they are a semi-continuous background hazard that rarely receive significant media coverage when a drowning occurs.

In contrast, shark fatalities are front page news, tugging at primal fears. An unusual spate of five shark fatalities since 2011 triggered the Western Australian government to commit $21 million on shark prevention interventions and to a radical new shark plan that will see large sharks removed.

Despite rip current fatalities being higher than fatal shark attacks during this time, no such funding or attention has been dedicated to the rip current hazard.

Considering Human Geography

Our fundamental scientific understanding of rip current formation and flow behaviour is sound. However, our collective efforts have largely ignored the human geography of the rip current problem.

We know very little about who is getting caught in rips, what they know about them, what their experience of being caught in a rip was actually like, and what information about rips people are likely to understand and remember.

This information is essential for developing appropriate and effective rip current interventions across a varied beach going population.

How To Escape A Rip

Traditional advice to escape a rip has been to “swim parallel to the beach” whereas recent research suggests that staying afloat may be the better option as many rip currents tend to re-circulate, theoretically bringing bathers back into shallower water.

This UNSW TV video, aimed at educating people on rip currents, has reached more than 1.1 million people.

Ongoing collaborative research between The University of New South Wales and Surf Life Saving Australia has measured rip current flow behaviour and escape strategies using GPS attached to drogues and swimmers as well as conducting surveys and interviews of “rip current survivors”.

Not surprisingly, results have shown that rip currents and people’s experiences in them are complex and varied. No single message is suitable for advising people how to react or to escape when caught in a rip current.

Instead, a combination of advice incorporating elements of floating, swimming and staying calm may be the best way forward to cover all scenarios, but communicating complex advice comes with its own challenges.

Prevention Is The Key

Efforts should instead be focused on prevention by improving awareness and understanding.

Rip current drownings are largely avoidable. If a person doesn’t get in a rip, they won’t drown in one. People need to somehow acquire knowledge that will motivate them to swim between the flags on patrolled beaches and avoid rips on unpatrolled beaches.

In this regard, the use of visuals through the release of harmless purple dye into rips (to show the movement of the current) has proven to be an effective technique.

Release of purple dye into the water shows a rip current at Tamarama Beach in Sydney. Rob Brander

For years I have been doing dye releases, or showing images and video of dye releases, as part of surf safety talks to the general public, primary and high school students. The media in particular has embraced this imagery giving it significant exposure.

The use of dye is dramatic, eye-catching and engaging and people seem to remember it. This recollection might be the difference between life and death when people decide whether to swim in an unpatrolled beach location.

All Australians and incoming tourists should be shown purple dye imagery in some format, as it brings the rip hazard to life. It’s not hard to do and is certainly cheaper than the present costs committed to shark interventions.

Robert Brander has received funding from the ARC.

The Conversation

This article was originally published at The Conversation. Read the original article.


    That's more people than have been taken by sharks.. We better start culling rips!

      It is funny isn't it, the way humans react to certain dangers, we yell shark and freak, yet your'e so much more likely to die driving to the beach. Fear always removes logic.

      Last edited 16/01/16 5:37 pm

    first time i've seen thepurple dye thing - they should do that more often so your average beach goer can see it, rather than maybe doing it at the beginning of the day for the life guards benefit or something.
    i can attest that swimming across the rip DOES work - you just have to make sure you're going the same way as the rip so it actually aids you in getting out of it quicker

    I was almost drowned by a rip a couple of years ago. Was at the peak of my unfitness, casual waves then all of a sudden the waves doubled or more in size in less than five minutes, pulling me out a bit and with me ending up on a rip on an unpatrolled beach.

    Was lucky my future brother in law has his gold medallion and is an awesome swimmer, went out and helped me back in. Was almost out of energy to fight the waves and current. Next day two beaches up two middle eastern brothers were drowned when one got into trouble and the other went out to save him.

    Not quite as keen on unpatrolled beaches anymore.

    Last edited 07/01/14 7:43 am

    at least this article is informative
    the other article has a commenter being downvoted for providing accurate information

    All surf lifesavers are aware of rips. They do look very carefully at the beach, surf, wind and other conditions before they place flags on the beach. Then they look continually to see if the flags they have placed are appropriate where they are or if they need to be moved.
    Many local councils employ Lifeguards at their beaches with one the main aims to ensure safe surfing and rips are certainly taken into account, so to say "no such funding or attention has been dedicated to the rip current hazard." is not correct.
    Rips are close to being the number one priority of Surf Lifesavers and Council employed Surf Lifeguards.

    Rather than over-police the beaches IN CASE of rip, maybe better to train people what to do in case the get caught in one. I often swim in unpatrolled beaches (because I don't like crowds), and been I've caught in rips several times. And guess what? I'm still here. To me, rips are more annoying than dangerous. The only thing that really concerns me is it can take me a fair way out (I've a limit in the distance I'm from the beach for shark reasons). The key is to not panic, don't expend too much energy fighting the ocean, and knowing you'll either escape or run out of current at some point (hopefully not too far from the shore). I swam horizontally out of a rip once and found myself 500 metres down the beach. So in short, if you don't know what to do in a rip, don't go in the water.

      over-police the beachesHow are beaches "over-policed"?
      Rip education is a sensible move, but so is patrolling beaches. It's not just experienced and strong swimmers who get in trouble. Many of those pulled from the water are from overseas or places where they have no exposure to surf conditions.
      Being as only 1 person has been killed swimming between the flags in the last 20 years, your suggestion "if you don't know what to do in a rip, don't go in the water" is hyperbole to the extreme.

    Many people (myself included) deliberately swim into the rip to get a tow out the back of the surf. You've got to work much harder to swim out through the breakers.

    Clubbies can't cope with this. They rush over on their jet skis etc and abuse you. Makes going to the beach really horrible. Much nicer to go to an un patrolled beach where there's no aggro.

    I got caught in a rip once and I'm a pretty weak swimmer. It fuckin sucks. It was only a shallow one, so I was able to get out of it fine despite barely being able to touch the sand, but it certainly wasn't easy and took me close to an hour. Stay safe.

    Being someone that isn't very beachy to start with, i have only just recently started kind of knowing what a rip looks like (even though I have lived in Australia all my life), but to be honest, I'm still not 100% certain that I could spot one out in the wild.
    No wonder so many tourists get caught in them.

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