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What is a rip current?

A rip current is a powerful, channeled current.

beach view with arrow to indicate rip current

Rip currents often form at low spots or breaks in sandbars. The powerful current channel may be very narrow or several yards wide. The arrows indicate the rip current in this photo. Credit: Dr. Tom Herrington, Stevens Institute of Technology

Rip currents are powerful, narrow channels of fast-moving water that are prevalent along the East, Gulf, and West coasts of the U.S., as well as along the shores of the Great Lakes.

Moving at speeds of up to eight feet per second, rip currents can move faster than an Olympic swimmer.

Panicked swimmers often try to counter a rip current by swimming straight back to shore—putting themselves at risk of drowning because of fatigue.

Lifeguards rescue tens of thousands of people from rip currents in the U.S. every year, but it is estimated that 100 people are killed by rip currents annually. If caught in a rip current, don't fight it! Swim parallel to the shore and swim back to land at an angle.

While the terms are ofter confused, rip currents are different than rip tides. A rip tide is a specific type of current associated with the swift movement of tidal water through inlets and the mouths of estuaries, embayments, and harbors.

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Break the Grip of the Rip!

Check out this handy chart for tips on what to do if you are caught in a rip current.


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