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Getting Current with Currents

We've heard the term and most of us sea-dwellers know that a Rip Tide (Rip Current) is more than just a pretty dope song we probably won't remember 2 years from now. And with my apologies to #VanceJoy aside, read on for a helpful and simplified explanation of what a Rip Tide is and how to avoid them. And for clarity- we are talking about RIP CURRENTS here even though about 99% of the world refers to it as a "Tide". A "Rip Tide is a totally different thing which we can cover later.

We've all had our beach days where your looking out across the water, decide to take a dip in and the moment your toes touch the surf the lifeguard blows his whistle and signals you out of the ocean. You look around at the peaceful beach pointing to yourself as if to say "who... Me?" and the lifeguard tells you that the perfect little spot you have selected for a swim is a Rip Tide and you need to make your way, WAY down the beach. A general rule of thumb when a lifeguard asks you for anything is just do it. His entire occupation is to keep you safe, not to explain hydraulics of why you might drown and chances are he knows what he's talking about because they are constantly pulling people out of them. Those not so lucky join the all to high statistic of 100 deaths in the United States alone per year.

So you move your basket and blanket down the beach a ways and the day is perfect but your left wondering- what was that whole riptide thing about? Welp, lets take a look.

Rip currents are basically powerful, narrow channels of really fast-moving water that form along the East, Gulf, and West coasts of the U.S., and along the shores of the Great Lakes. it is essentially a narrow raging river that exists within the ocean itself rushing the highly focused, strong current and anything caught in it out to sea.

How are they formed? These currents have a variety of causes, but it is impossible to predict exactly where or when they will form. Though not directly related to tides, they are more dangerous when the water is receding from the shore. They frequently form around features like piers, reefs and sandbars. Wind is a significant risk factor, but it doesn’t have to be nearby. It could be further out to sea setting the whole catastrophe into motion from a ways away. Needless to say, however they are formed try and stay away.

So how do you spot one on your own? To the untrained eye the ocean all looks the same. To me each wave is like a snowflake, not that I spend much of my time looking at snowflakes. Every ripple, the speed, the shape, the curl. Its all unique and if you observe the ocean Sherlock Holmes style you can tell that no two tides are the same. So look for the red flags that are natures way of warning you somethings up. Its subtle but not impossible to spot.

Look for a gap between the waves. Not between each wave but a perpendicular line that stretches from the sand to the great horizon splitting two wave masses in half. If there is huge waves on the left and right but a perfectly smooth yellow brick road of sorts leading out you should be weary. There is a reason waves aren't breaking there. That smooth channel might also be waveless but extremely choppy. An even worse indicator.

You can also watch what seaweed or other debris is doing. Like dropping a paper boat in the water if the ocean is sucking it out into the deep best to leave it alone.

One more visual clue is discoloration of water. Rip currents tend to churn up the sand and tidal beds of the sea floor making a narrow stream of water appear murky and muddy. Look out for that. Check out this awesome visual of an arial view of riptides at:

So say we don't have our contact lenses in and we stumble straight into a rip current. We feel the strong force of the wave sucking us out into the ocean. What do we do about it. Lets start with what not to do. Because these errors could cost you your life.

Don't panic. Ive said countless times, before anyone drowns in water they first drown in there own panic. Stay calm. Rip currents can seem overwhelming but they only exist in a tiny bowling lane. Get out of the lane and you will be safe and the threat gone.

Don't swim toward the shore. Sounds backwards right? It isn't. That current might be moving at a rate of 8ft per second. You on the other hand, do not. Pick your battles to suit your strength. If that current is pulling you out to sea just roll with it but as the current swims you out, you need to start swimming to the side. This will lead you to make a crescent moon out and around the current itself.

If you find yourself exhausted and unable to keep it going. Like we are talking as though you have no strength left in your body let the current carry you, keep constant smooth breaths and let yourself float. That rip tide will lead you out and around and that is better than forfeiting your remaining ability to keep your head above water.

Im just going to add one more thing because I stupidly and humbly have wound up in several bad ones over my 20 years of surfing. Do not paddle out alone in waters you do not know. Just don't. Bring a buddy, tell a friend to have your back, or pick one of the millions of other lifeguard watched breaks in your area. No wave is worth your life and consider that when selecting a beach.

For more information regarding riptides check in with your local lifeguard. #CalibungaSurfLessons also offers free phone consultation about ocean safety and you are welcome to call and inquire about basic ocean safety information by phone or email free of charge as part of our unique promise to insure safe surfing.

A helpful explination video can be found at:

-Luke C.

Calibunga Surf Lessons

Rip Current

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