Go With the Flow

by Mike McDaniel on August 7, 2012

For new surfers, venturing out into the waves can come with a fair dose of anxiety. Consider natural hazards like submerged rocks and reefs, crowds and territorial locals, and of course, modern media loves to remind us of sharks and tsunamis. But responsible for more drama than anything else is the very real threat of rip currents, also called rips.

A rip is water flowing back out to sea, away from the beach. It’s releasing the energy that comes into the beach in waves. If you study your beach closely, you can usually spot channels of water moving out. These are rips.

Not all rips are cause for alarm. Many are barely noticeable, but some are quite powerful. Surfers know the rips at their beach; they’re helpful for paddling out and around the lineup. But for less experienced beach-goers, the same rip that makes your paddle easy can make their beach day a nightmare. Surfers are alert and pay attention to the rips, for their sake and the sake of others.

Your best response when getting caught in a rip is to stay calm. Yeah, right. But really, once you know that the current will subside, you’ll be able to float parallel to the shore as you make your way back in. Don’t try to fight the rip and paddle directly against it. You’ll burn through the energy you’ll need to stay afloat.
If you’re in doubt about your ability to swim in, turn towards the shore and wave your arms. This signals that you need assistance.

If you see someone caught in a rip and you need to help, take the advice of the lifeguards and send buoyant objects like a surfboard, air mattress, or cooler. If you’re not a trained lifeguard, don’t become the second victim by attempting to swim out.

Here are a couple links that do a great job describing rip current conditions and rescue strategies:

Ginger Zee Gets Ripped
ABC News Anchor Ginger Zee learns about rips.
USLA and NOAA Rip Current One MInute Video

Las Olas safari coordinator Mike McDaniel recounts his experience and rescue of a swimmer caught in a rip at a popular Monterey County beach.

April 7th, Asilomar State Beach, Central Coast California

“It was a beautiful and warm spring Saturday. The surf report was looking meager, but the wind was light and I thought there might be some fun little waves. So I put the longboard on top of the car and headed down to Asilomar in the early afternoon.

I saw what I expected upon arrival; small but clean little waves, a small handful of maybe six or seven surfers in the water, and LOTS of people on the sand. Most of the surfers had already departed. The beach was crowded with the kind of people who only come to the sea when the weather is perfect; tourists, some older folks and some youths; some of them wading out into the shallows wearing only swimsuits. Point being, it was a pretty day with small, gentle waves; an untrained eye wouldn’t expect any danger to be present.

As I pulled my wetsuit on at the car, I could see my friend Ken and his unmistakeable baby blue longboard out in the water. I hustled down the trail and paddled out to join him. We traded waves for a while and talked in between. The waves were fun, much better than I had expected. Ken told me he had to get going and that he was going to catch one into the beach. A shoulder high set approached, maybe the best set I’d seen so far. I hooted for him as he stroked into the first wave, and I positioned myself for the second one.

Asilomar is a sort of crescent shaped beach and I kicked out of my wave as I approached the inside middle part of the beach. This is the area where a rip is usually running back out, and that makes the paddle back pretty easy, almost like a conveyor belt back to the waves. Good for surfers, bad for inexperienced swimmers.

I had taken about six strokes when I heard the shout. I looked to my left and saw a head and an arm; the arm was waving aggressively. I made eye contact with the swimmer and he shouted at me again, and he immediately looked relieved that I had spotted him. The rip was taking him out at a pace that matched my own. I changed course and paddled toward him and as soon as I did, I saw another arm about 40 meters past him. That arm belonged to another swimmer and he was screaming, in a state of panic. I picked up speed and yelled to both of them “Don’t panic!”

As I got within about ten meters of the first swimmer, I could see he was basically ok, treading water well and not really panicking. So I told him to relax, swim parallel to the beach if he could, and that I was going to go get his buddy first (who was still yelling). He nodded that he understood, and I sprinted for the other guy.

I yelled at him again to not panic because he was really screaming and his expression looked terrified. He was about 18 years old, and at least once, I saw his head go underwater indicating that he was exhausted. But once I reached him, he nearly leapt onto my board. He was out of breath and energy, and only had swim trunks on in the 51 or 52 degree water. His body was telling his head that this was a very bad situation, but he didn’t know how to deal with it. I told him that I’d get him to the beach and to just hang onto the board, relax, and breathe.

I turned my board from the tail, with the kid on the front, and looked back for the first swimmer. Ken already had him. Apparently, he had heard the shouts from the sand and went back into the water when he saw me going after these guys in the rip. So, simultaneously, Ken and I paddled them out of the rip, parallel to the beach, and then back to shore. It probably only took three to five minutes, but it seemed longer. Once you escape the rip by going sideways, it gets a lot easier to get back to the sand.

Mike to the rescue.
Author Mike McDaniel cruising by on a paddleboard.

When our feet hit the sand in chest deep water, the kid thanked me, but didn’t linger. I wanted to coach him on rips, how to spot them and deal with them, but he wanted to be back on the beach. I could see a group of youths—his friends—rushing over to him as he emerged from the water, and also a cadre of emergency vehicles on the road; fire truck, police car, ambulance, and a state park truck. Somebody had called 911 when they saw these two guys being pulled out to sea against their will. The emergency responders we’re all headed down to the sand to check them out, so I knew they would give the boys a lesson on rips. I paddled back out for a couple more waves.

Basically, they got caught off guard by several factors. They waded out, probably never expecting to even get their hair wet. They didn’t know there might be a rip, or maybe didn’t even know what a rip is. They probably didn’t expect the water to be so cold, or realize how quickly you can get exhausted trying to swim in it, against a rip. They got hit by a couple of small waves, got too close to the rip, and before they knew it, were being taken out to sea; literally and figuratively, in over their heads.”

Mike McDaniel is the Las Olas Surf Safaris Operations Manager and fifteen year veteran of surf travel. With surf missions to Baja, Costa Rica, Japan, Hawaii, Fiji and over 70 safaris in mainland Mexico, Mike’s insights on air travel, surf culture and coastal geography have kept Las Olas’ surf safaris on course for a decade.

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