Rip Currents

What is a rip current and how to avoid, and if necessary, swim out of one

Rip currents can be powerful and dangerous. It is important to understand what a rip current is, how they form, how to spot them, and if necessary, what to do if you're caught in one.

What is a rip current?

Rip currents are channeled currents of water flowing away from shore. They generally begin from the shoreline and head through the surf zone – past the line of breaking waves. Some people mistakenly call this undertow. It is important to understand that there is no undertow, just water moving away from the beach. Learn more about rip currents at the National Weather Service »

How do rip currents form?

Rip currents are created by wind and waves. Waves that break over shallow sandbars and reefs push water towards the shore. Water builds up near shore and must get back out to sea. This pressure creates concentrated rivers of water to move away from the beach to calmer deeper water. The water forced away from shore is otherwise known as a rip current.

How to spot a rip current

Look for waves breaking over shallow reefs and/or sandbars. Then look for deeper channel(s) without waves breaking. This is where water will be moving away from shore. Rip currents will look similar to a moving river with little chops breaking against the flow of water. View photos of rip currents at the National Weather Service »

What to do if you find yourself in a rip current

The best thing to do is learn to spot rip currents and avoid them. However, if you do find yourself in a rip current, remember the following. It could save your life!

  • Don't Fight The Rip Current - Conserve energy, keep calm, float, breathe, don’t panic, and wave for help
  • Go With The Flow - You can easily float in the current, there is no undertow. Allow the current to take you away from the beach. In weaker rips, swim parallel to the shore until the current has completely relaxed. Otherwise, the current will eventually release you offshore. Once this happens swim perpendicular and towards the beach
  • Wait For Help - If there is large surf or shoreline hazards, wave your hands for help and wait for assistance
Comments (25 comments)   View all comments   

jim stanutz | Dec 31, 2007 5:00PM

please could you tell me what beaches to watch out for undertows we will be there inon kauai from feb5 to feb20 thanks for any imformation you can give we really like snorkeling but want to [...] view more

Kauai Explorer Staff | Dec 31, 2007 7:16PM

Jim - a rip current can occur at any beach. All beachgoers should learn to recognize the signs of a rip current. Think about the physics: where water comes in it must then go out. [...] view more

Marisa | May 05, 2008 8:31AM

I am so excited about recent progress in our islands oceon safety efforts. A very generous friend of Dr.Downs who is also involved in the Kauai oceon [...] view more

Matt | Jun 21, 2008 7:16AM

My wife and I are visiting Kauai for the first time in Aug and we have been exited to go on a sea kayak tour along the Na Pali coast. We are both in good shape but not "ocean people" we live [...] view more

Kauai Explorer Staff | Jun 23, 2008 6:54AM

Hi Matt. Kayaking the Na Pali is strenuous, so plan for an all day rigurous adventure. The only way to do it is through a guided tour. Explorer does not recommend specific companies, but an online [...] view more

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