I run a popular community education program called The Science of the Surf that started off as monthly seminars at Tamarama Beach with a release of harmless purple dye into the rip current (hence the nickname ‘Dr Rip’).
It’s been 10 years since I started and I’ve now presented my talk to over 50,000 people, mostly school kids, and more than half a million people have watched my YouTube videos on rips and waves.
And it all started because as a surf scientist and a lifesaver at Tamarama, it was pretty obvious to me that most people didn’t have a clue what rip currents were and that was a wake up call for me.
I just assumed all Australians knew about rips, but the truth is, they don’t and that’s a big problem.
Rips are the biggest hazard you’ll face at any beach that has a lot of breaking waves.
Every year about 30-40 people drown in rips in Australia and about 90% of the tens of thousands of surf rescues are rip related.
Just watch a few episodes of Bondi Rescue and you’ll get the idea.
They account for more fatalities in a typical year in Australia than bushfires, floods and sharks COMBINED.
Yet how much press coverage do they get? Not much.
We have developed a very dangerous complacency about the danger of rips.
I could harp on about rips forever and if you’ve looked through the OceanFit website, you’ll see Andre harping on about them as well and that’s because they are seriously important and they are pretty much everywhere on the South-east coast of Australia.
But here’s the thing… they don’t need to be scary.
Rips are a surfers best friend.
Who wants to paddle out through the surf when a nice rip can give you a free ride out the back and you can surf all day without getting too tired?
For some people in the lifesaving world this blog will be controversial.
The thought of promoting anywhere else to swim at a beach except for between the red and yellow flags would be enough to make them turn grey.
The last Newspoll research into this area conducted by Surf Life Saving Australia found that 93% of people in Australia knew to swim between the red and yellow flags – so why don’t anywhere near that percentage actually swim between them?
Coastal safety statistics tell us that the majority of drowning deaths occur on unpatrolled beaches or during unpatrolled times – and that the largest demographic is males, specifically young invincible males.
Rip Currents also account for a large portion of drowning deaths and most people wouldn’t be able to spot one if they were walking into it. The first time beach-goers notice a rip on a beach is when they’re caught in one.
I don’t have any hard facts for this, but I would suggest these are the reasons people don’t swim between the flags:
Too many people in the area
Hate being corralled like sheep
Not on my local beach
Only up on the weekends
Flags not up early enough or late enough
Not on remote beaches visited
The best waves are outside them
So is it really that bad to swim outside the flags?
It really comes down to your ability to cope with the conditions on the day.
If you’re a strong swimmer, confident in the surf and you’re swimming with a mate (always a good idea whether between or outside the flags) then you can pretty much swim where you want to – within your limits of course.
On a beach that’s patrolled by lifeguards (or our volunteer lifesavers) it’s not the end of the world. You will be watched no matter where you are on the beach, however, the closer to the flags or lifeguard towers you are the better. You can’t bank your life on being seen, but you’ll have a better chance. And all this is assuming you can handle being whistled at by the lifesavers all day – not quite the beach experience you were after, I’d imagine.
On unpatrolled beaches you’re really swimming at your own peril. Chances are there is no professional help in easy response time, and if you got into trouble you’d be relying on your mates or your own ability.
Relying on your mates isn’t a great idea. Many would be rescuers become victims themselves, and you don’t want that on your conscience.
So where do you swim when you don’t want to swim between the flags?
You’ll want to swim exactly where the flags would have been placed if there was a patrol operating – on a sand bar.
How do you locate a sand bar? This will be the area of the beach where it’s shallow and the waves are breaking consistently. The water here is more likely to be coming towards the shore as the waves bring water to the beach.
Remember, waves break in shallow water. So, the further out they’re breaking, and the longer the area of white-water the better – that means it’s a sand bank.
Conversely, if there’s a patch on the beach where waves are not breaking consistently, and there’s not much white-water around, then this is most likely the location of a Rip Current – so keep away.
You are likely to find a sand bar located between two rips. If you’re swimming on the sand bank and the water is sweeping you along the beach it’ll be pulling you towards a rip, so keep in the middle of the sand bar.
When you arrive at any beach you should observe the conditions for at least five minutes. This will give you a better picture of what the waves are doing over time and help you establish the cycle and consistency of the conditions.
Once you’re happy that you’ve spotted a sand bar (and the rips if you can) then you can go for a swim – but be careful.
Have fun and stay safe this summer – Know your Ocean Responsibility Code (except in this case you’ve chosen not to ‘Always swim at beaches patrolled by lifeguards’).
Sit back, grab a coffee and listen to OceanFit’s Andre Slade discuss a range of surf safety topics with Dan from Eastside Radio.
In this Eastside Radio Interview Andre from OceanFit talks about Rip Currents. What are they? How do you spot them? and How to you survive one?
In this Eastside Radio Interview Andre from OceanFit talks about Ocean Anxiety. What is it? What causes it? How can you overcome it?
In this Eastside Radio Interview Andre from OceanFit talks about Sharks. Should you be concerned? When is the best time to swim?
In this Eastside Radio Interview Andre from OceanFit talks about Beach Weather. Learn about what influences ocean conditions and when are the best times to swim at the beach.
OCEAN RESPONSIBILITY CODE
In this Eastside Radio Interview Andre from OceanFit talks about The Ocean Responsibility Code. Learn the inspiration behind the The Code and the positive guidelines it promotes so you can enjoy a fun and safe day at the beach.
In this Eastside Radio Interview Andre from OceanFit talks about Family Beach Days. Get simple beach safety advice for the whole family and a handful of really helpful tips to make your family day at the beach fun and safe.
Rip currents are our beaches hidden danger. On any beach with waves you’ll find rip currents working like rivers of the ocean. They return water brought to the beach by waves back out to disperse behind the waves again.
How to spot a rip current
To spot a rip current take 5 minutes from an elevated position and look for patterns in the waves. Rip currents exist where there are deeper channels between shallow sand banks. Identifying features will be darker calmer water, less broken waves than on nearby sand banks or surfers using them to get out behind the waves.
How to survive a rip current
Should you find yourself out of your depth and moving away from the beach; float with the current and converse your energy. Your chance of survival increases the less you panic, so remain calm and look around and call for assistance from nearby swimmers or surfers.
To take direct action to escape a rip current aim for the shallow sand banks where the waves will be breaking, here you can use the waves to assist you towards beach until it’s shallow enough to stand up.
You can avoid rip currents by swimming between the red and yellow flags on beaches patrolled by lifeguards.
Breaking rip current myths:
Rip currents don’t pull you under the water – there is no such thing as an under tow
Rip currents don’t take you ‘way out to sea’ – they will disperse behind the waves
Sand banks don’t collapse – large waves wash people off their feet into rip currents
FLOAT, THINK & ACT
The rip current won’t pull you under, so float – keeping your head above water, conserve your energy and ride the current.
Your chance of survival increases the less you panic, so remain calm, look around for assistance and think through your options.
Raise an arm and wait for assistance OR once the current has stopped, swim towards the breaking waves where the water is shallower.