How to spot a rip ( and what to do if you're in one )

Rips are serious business, a swimmers worst nightmare and understanding how to spot a rip is something you should know before even entering the ocean.

In Australia alone, there are more than 17,000 rips on local beaches, every single day. That's over 6.2 million every single year. 

Chances are, as a surfer, you'll come across your fair share of rips. 17% of Australians will be caught in a rip in their lifetimes, that's 4.2 million of the 25 million Aussies.

Like all our long articles, we include a helpful index for you:

If I haven't scared you enough yet, let's look at this staggering fact.

Between the years of 2004-2016 there was 26 shark bite related deaths, in that same year span there was 230 rip drowning deaths, 86% of those were men between the ages of 15-39.

Shark vs Rip

Whilst surfers believe their number one threat, is the sharp-toothed shark, where in reality rips take more lives and cause more problems than any shark.

It doesn't matter that your board acts as a flotation device, or that you think it will protect you, in our guide to picking leg ropes, we go into depth of leg ropes breaking, and they do. If your board gets taken, crushed or broken and you're stuck in a rip, you're in some serious trouble.

A survey by Surf Life Saving Australia shows that a massive 72% of people understood how extremely dangerous rips are, outranking sunburns, stingers, crocodiles and, yes, sharks.

68% of men said they could somewhat identify a rip, however, only 31% actually could, so whether you think you can, or you know you can you should read this article and properly understand what identifying a rip entails, only 12% of surveyed were confident in escaping a rip.

So think to yourself, if you get stuck in a rip, what do you do?

So how do you spot a rip?

How to identify a rip

Deeper, darker coloured water, fewer breaking waves, rippled surface surrounded by still water, and seaweed, sediment and churning, sandy clouds floating towards the back of the waves are just some of the best ways to spot a rip.

To the untrained eye, rips are not obvious, they can hide, and be quite hard to spot from the shoreline. Surf Life Saving towers are not raised for no reason, finding the high ground makes it far easier to spot a channel.

Experienced surfers and swimmers will often find the high ground to look down on their surf zone ( the area between the shore and the breaking waves furthest out ) to suss out the flow of currents, this is the best way to spot a rip from the beach.

Although some rips are more subtle than others and hard to identify, it's well worth assessing before hitting the waves. 

Deeper, darker coloured water

When a wave hits the shore, it has to go somewhere, the huge force of the water rushing back out to sea curves large channels in between shallower areas of sand.

Darker, deeper water

Fewer breaking waves

The "rip area" is the deeper channel where water is on it's way out, this area won't have as many breaking waves as the surrounding surf where the white-foam-tipped waves break onto the sand.

Fewer waves

Rippled surface surrounded by calm water

When various currents heading in all different directions are pushing towards one another, it will create a beautiful, yet very dangerous rippled effect, that is very noticeable.

Ripples in calm water rip

Seaweed, sediment and churning, sandy clouds floating towards the back of the waves

You will notice large amounts of sand being taken from the beach, creating heavy clouds in the water being pulled towards the sea.


How do you get out of a rip?

Do not, under any circumstances attempt to swim directly back to shore, do not panic, panicking leads to fatigue, which leads to drowning.


Ian Thorpe himself, Australian swimming icon, holding 10 world records and has won 5 Olympic gold medals, swam at 6.91 km/hr in his 200m freestyle event in 2001, Slower that what a rip can pull you along at.

Your chances of our swimming a rip are slim, calm your body, relax and consider your options, and your surroundings is the first step.

If you're a competent swimmer, you can consider swimming parallel to the beach, swimming out of the current and find your way back to shore. 

If you're a poorer swimmer, you should not only consider what you were doing going out in the first place but signal for help by waving a hand calmly and calling for help.

Other suggestions are to allow it to take you out, and signal for help, but this is only suggested in near patrolled beaches with on-duty lifesavers. 

How to excape a rip

What is a rip current?

Understanding what exactly a rip is, can also help in understanding how dangerous they really are, Rip currents are extremely powerful narrow channels of fast-moving water.

Lifesavers say that every rip and every situation is different, advice can be given but the varying situation will depend on the actions you take in a rip.

Low energy rips

A low energy rip is the most common, and occur when waves are smaller and haven't changed in a while. Low energy rips sit in channels between sandbars and don't move all that much.

High energy rips

Also known as a flash rip, high energy rips are bigger and occur when waves suddenly increase, they also occur during storms and tend to flow and move around a lot more.

Headland and fixed rips

These are permanent, and sit next to headlands and structures such as groins and jetties, and should be kept clear at all times.

What to do if you see someone in a rip?

Take the situation very serious, assess the situation, your own personal abilities and only act with what you're capable of doing.

Surf life saver

If the situation is that there is a junior or an elder being pulled by the current, and you're a very competent swimmer, and knowledgeable with the risks of rips than swimming out and guiding the troubled swimmer out of the rip is an option.

Don't hold the swimmer, but calm them and help them relax to save energy, swimming them sideways out of trouble. If the swimmer is having trouble or struggling to get out, then remain calm, save your energy and escape out the back, and signal for help.

Let's say you're not a great swimmer, or the person in the rip appears to be in good shape, fully capable of swimming out, call out and point sideways, flagging them to swim across and not against.

Your other option is to flag down another bystander, lifesaver or surfer.

Call 000, or 911 depending on your countries emergency ambulance service for precautionary assessment, this is very important, salt water in the lungs can lead to internal drowning. 

Note: Only attempt to swim out and save somebody if you understand, and know how to get out of a rip properly and a regular, experienced swimmer.

Take responsibility

You might not want to hear it, you might not accept it.

But being caught in a rip is your own fault, don't blame lifeguards, the person who comes to your resue or anybody else. 

Assuming it won't happen to you, that you won't ever get caught in a rip, and if you do, you know what to do. Assess the conditions, understand the risks and swim or surf in between the red and yellow flags at patrolled beaches.

Learning CPR is probably one of the best things you can do, whether you're an accountant, a surfer, work in retail or still in school getting your CPR certificate and being trained is something that is well worth the small investment.

You never know, you could be the one responsible for saving your brother, your sister, your mother or your partner. Would you know what to do if they were in trouble?

For more information, take a look at:

Bondi beach rips


  • A really good, clear, sensible set of advice. Well worth taking time to really ‘take in’. Could well be a life-saver.. Being a strong swimmer is not always enough….. Having an exciting time, perhaps as a new surfer, distracts your attention from possible danger.

    Samantha Mansfield
  • Great article, thank you. Spotting a rip from a helicopter might be easy, but doing so standing on a beach isn’t, but this article has given me some great insight.
    Small tweak suggested; it’s groyne, not groin under Headland and fixed rips.

    Bob Harvie

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