A rip current may have different shapes, but it can always turn deadly.
June of 2023 was a disastrous month along Florida Panhandle Beaches. Having saved money all year for a beach vacation, tourists were dead set on entering dangerous water. They did so despite double red flags warning of unsafe water, police-levied fines (reportedly $500 in Panama City Beach), and lifeguard alerts.
The poster below defines the classic shape of a rip current, as well as methods for escaping that irresistible force of water returning offshore.
A Chance Encounter
Reality may be more complicated than shown in the poster. The aerial photos below, taken by my copilot wife in 2017, show an alternative shape of a rip current. Sediment stirred up in the surf zone stained the flow, revealing its form distorted by the down beach, longshore current. That sediment also exposed three rip currents along a three-mile section of the sandy beach.
The aerial photos validate the swimmer escape plan shown in the above poster. It also confirms that once you turn shoreward, you may reenter the rip current if you stray too close to the drained portion of the beach.
Paradoxically, if the current loops back as it does in these photos, and if you have flotation, the current might eventually carry you toward shore. Of course, if you drift too far down the beach, you might encounter yet another rip current.
From the Experts
The University of California San Diego Sea Grant Program answered a myth about rip currents in the following web article based on insights from Dr. Dalrymple, an Emeritus Professor at Johns Hopkins University and currently a Distinguished Professor at Northwestern University. I quote from that Sea Grant article.
Myth: If you get caught in a powerful rip, you can be swept out to sea forever.
Answer: Even under the worst conditions, you won’t be swept to the middle of the ocean, though it could be a long swim back to shore.
Most rip currents are part of a closed circuit, says Robert Anthony Dalrymple, a coastal engineer and rip current scientist at Johns Hopkins University. If you ride a rip current long enough – float along with it – you will usually be taken back to shore by a diffuse, weaker return flow.
The exception to this occurs during fierce storms, when pounding surf sets up powerful longshore currents that shed turbulent eddies. The seaward-flowing arms of these swirling currents may look and feel like “rips,” but they are not part of a circulation cell that will slowly carry you toward shore. Instead you’ll be deposited outside of the surf-zone, sometimes a distance of multiple widths of it. When the surf is big, most people should stay out of the water.
From Dalrymple’s comments, it seems that the above photos show longshore currents distorting the rip current circulation. If you were lucky enough to be able to float with those currents until they dissipate, you would indeed be left far from the surf zone.
As Dalrymple said, when the surf is big, most people should stay out of the water. But frankly, based on recent beach history, that is a gross understatement. Most emphatically, STAY OUT OF THE WATER when double red flags are flying. Those flags mean the beach is formally and legally closed.
No beach is worth dying for.