What it is Like to be Caught in a Rip Current


I’ve heard about the dangers of rip currents all my life, and have also been taught how to escape their powerful pull. I had always assumed that being caught in one would feel like suddenly being pulled away from the shore. It turns out that it can actually feel like nothing at all, and you often don’t realize you are in one until you are in real danger. And I never REALLY thought that it would happen to ME.

Let me rewind. Last week my family went on a mini-vacation in the Outer Banks of North Carolina. The winds were 10 to 15 miles an hour the entire time we were there, and the surf was very active. Some areas had red flags, but some had yellow. My children had been waiting all year to swim in the ocean waves, so on our first day we decided to travel to a yellow flag area and swim in front of a lifeguard to help ensure safety. Nags Head had even employed hang-gliders to help monitor the ocean from above (that has got to be the Coolest. Job. EVER.). In the Outer Banks there are a lot of areas with steep drop-offs right at the water’s edge, but we found an area that had a sandbar not too far out. It helped us enjoy the water without being in very deep. My husband and I were very cautious, kept our children at arm’s length, and tried not to get in water that was above waist-high. We also didn’t stay in the water longer than an hour because we knew the dangers of becoming overtired. We had a fun and uneventful afternoon, and in hindsight I think that made me overconfident. 

The next morning the conditions were the same. It was also the day we needed to go home so we wanted to get in one last swim. It was 8:30 in the morning and the lifeguards were not out yet. Nevertheless we decided to travel to the same location in the hopes that a lifeguard would soon arrive. We also wanted to be able to stand on the sandbar in the water again to avoid the drop off. What I did not know at the time was that rip currents often form in channels between two sandbars. (Here is a helpful website that has information about identifying and avoiding rip currents, RipCurrents.com.) 

We frolicked for about 40 minutes in the waves, again taking care to keep our children right next to us and not get in too deep. I had my 10-year-old son near me (my youngest was with his father), and I dove to go under a wave. When I resurfaced I was confused, and remarked to my son, “Somehow I’m in water over my head!” It surprised me, because just a moment earlier I had been in water that was only waist-deep. Little did I know that the rip current had been steadily pushing me away from the shore for over a minute already, because I didn’t feel a thing.

Thankfully, at my remark about the deep water my son had instinctively moved in closer to shore. I began to try to swim back to regain my footing. It was an exhausting effort. After about a minute I was shocked to see that I was even further away from the sand, and that’s when I knew what was happening. In that moment I felt a terror I have never known, but the panic that gripped my throat was not out of concern for my own safety. Instead, my first thought was to make sure that my 10-year-old son, who was near me but much closer to shore, was out of danger. I shouted to him with a voice that sounded like a growl because it was vibrating with fear and intensity, “Get out of the water!” It was the primal, panicked cry of a mother protecting her child. He sensed the urgency in my voice and did as I asked, no questions asked. His next thought was to check on his younger brother, and he warned him to stay out of the water. My oldest had no idea what was going on, but he knew that there must be danger. I was very proud of his quick thinking.

Once I knew my son was safely out of the water I was still afraid, but no longer panicked. I tried to stay calm and concentrate on getting myself out of the situation. Unfortunately in the short time that I had tried to swim back to shore, when I didn’t realize that I was working against an endlessly powerful water treadmill, I had already used up a lot of energy. I mustered up the strength I could to swim sideways, because I was taught that you need to travel parallel to the beach to break out of the strong current. I quickly realized that I wasn’t making much progress and I had very little energy left. I called out my husband’s name and then deliberately continued. I wanted to let him know what was going on, but I figured he would see that I was swimming sideways and know what that meant. I assumed he would also see that I had the situation under control.

All that my husband saw was that I appeared to be in distress, and he decided to come help me. As he began to enter the waters I was both relieved that he came to be my rescuer, and horrified at the possibility that he could get caught up in the same overwhelming current. Somehow he managed to get to a place where he was able to plant his feet firmly and also reach my hand. It took a great deal of strength on both our parts, but we managed to wrench my body out of the current and make it back to shore. I collapsed in the sand, heart pounding and mind racing. I was completely depleted, and still in disbelief at what had just happened. It was unsettling to have experienced such helplessness, and I was immensely grateful that my child had not been closer to me when it happened. It was a terrifying brush with danger.

When I was safe and dry I did some research about rip currents. It turns out they cause more deaths than sharks every year, but we hear little about it in the news. On average they kill around 100 people a year in the United States alone. They also do not discriminate, and many a young and healthy individual, who considered themselves to be strong swimmers, has fallen prey to them.

I had always thought that being caught in a rip current would be immediately obvious, and would feel like you’re being tugged away from shore. While there are some that can suddenly pull your feet out from under you, it is possible to not feel them at all as they silently and swiftly sweep you out into the deeper ocean. It also often happens while you are diving under a wave. Some people don’t realize they are caught in one until the shoreline is far away, and they are already in grave danger.

There are different kinds of rip currents, and it is nearly impossibly to break free from them by swimming straight back to shore. I heard it said, “Michael Phelps cannot swim to shore against a rip current!” Most experts agree that the best way to escape is to swim alongside the shore until you are able to break free. Some newer studies suggest that simply treading water can help you escape one more easily, because swimming sideways could possibly put you further inside the current. The logic is that eventually you will be brought back to shore, but some refute that claim. However, if you are UNABLE to swim sideways and out of the current then treading water is the safest course of action. Whatever you do, keep your head above water and DON’T panic. It will NOT pull you under, it simply wants to pull you away. Also, try to get the attention of someone who can get help.

My husband was lucky that he was able to successfully assist me, and without endangering both of us. I read a horrifying tale of a father who had his son ripped out of his hand by the sheer force of the current, and he watched helplessly as his child floated out to sea. My heart goes out to him, and grows cold at the thought of what could have happened to my own son.

Some other informative tips: If there are no waves at all, there are no rip currents. They are more likely to occur in the hours just before and after low tide, when the pull away from the shore is the strongest. Observe and obey all flags and warnings; they are there to help protect you. And always swim near a lifeguard if you can.

The power of Mother Nature is supreme, and not to be underestimated. Educate yourself on the danger of rip currents before your next trip to the beach.

Stay safe, and stay alive!

(Update: Someone commented on our Facebook page that this can also be a metaphor for the insidious pull of depression.)

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4 thoughts on “What it is Like to be Caught in a Rip Current

  1. thedreamer01 August 30, 2015 / 9:10 AM

    Sounds scary, glad you are okay! Thanks for the rip current information.


  2. Full Spectrum Mama September 2, 2015 / 9:13 AM

    CHILLS! Yes, great advice.
    I once got tumbled badly by a rogue wave, but that’s a different story…the common thing being, dang, water is STRONG!!!!
    Glad you’re ok!


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