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How to Spot and Survive a Rip Current

Thank you to Panama City Beach’s WMBB News 13 Chief Meteorologist Ross Whitley for sharing this article on how to spot and survive a rip current with us. This content was originally posted on the My Panhandle website.

Florida has the most coastline in the continental United States. It isn’t surprising that we also typically have the most rip current deaths each year. So far, 2021 was the deadliest year for Florida Rip currents in the last decade or so with twenty-eight deaths. However, 2023 will likely be a record breaking year. Twenty-five deaths have already been confirmed due to rip currents, with twelve people drowned due to rip currents in Florida just this month. With more and more people visiting and moving to Florida, it’s never been more important to learn how to spot and survive a rip current. Always check for warnings before going to a beach and heed any cautions. Not getting to swim at the beach may ruin your day or vacation, but the result of getting caught in a rip current can ruin so much more.

Spotting a Rip Current

How to Spot and Survive a Rip Current Illustration
Photo courtesy of Bay County Sheriff’s Office
  1. Find the U in the sand ( red line on the beach ). This U happens from sand being displaced thanks to the onshore flow of the water. The rip is usually on the downwind side of the U but can be perfectly straight out. That typically happens when the wind is directly onshore.
  2. Look for deeper water. Note where the rips are typically deeper and the color of the water darker. (Red Line pointed out )
  3. Look for surf, where the waves are breaking. The water is likely coming in or fighting the water coming out. This is usually where the shallower water is. ( Yellow Lines )
  4. Stand still and watch the water for 30 seconds. If you can visualize the water moving out and it lines up with a u in the sand, plus there isn’t any surf and the water is deeper than the surrounding water, you are likely looking at a rip. This water is not safe to get in even if you are an Olympic swimmer.

Here are some examples of rips from the shoreline:

rip current from shore
Using the information above can you spot the rip? Look below if you need help.
rip current from shore with arrows
rip current from shore with explanation
Not all rip currents are the same but you should be able to use the spotting tools you have learned here to point them out.

Survival of a Rip, if Caught

  1. Don’t panic.
  2. Don’t panic.
  3. Don’t panic!
  4. Float as best as you can facing the shore and wave your arms for help.
  5. Note the green arrows. You can escape rips by swimming parallel to the shore in either direction (Green Lines). There are several getting-out points where you can get back to shore if you follow the surf (yellow lines back in).
  6. Continue to not panic and let the rip take you out. When you feel you are no longer being pulled out, swim parallel and follow waves that are moving to the shore to get out safely.

Seeing Someone in a Rip

  1. Call 911 and tell them what access you are at.
  2. Try to get the attention of a nearby surfer/jet ski/ boater and let them know that someone needs help.
  3. From the shore, shout directions of which way the person caught in the rip should swim to get out of the rip.

Never get in the water to help. Wait for emergency responders to arrive.

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