[In support of the RNLI and HM Coastguard’s #BeBeachSafe campaign we’re sharing a series of simple guides geared towards surfers on how to keep yourself and others safe in rippy lineups. View the whole series here.]
“Rips help you understand the surf environment, so understanding rips will make you a better surfer,” says senior Cornish lifeguard Pete Geall. And he’s right. Not only will learning to spot them keep you safe while you’re still learning, it’ll also help you read the lineup, pick the best peak and unlock a lifetime of surf lift passes once you improve. Because when you know how to spot and handle rips, you can start using them to your advantage to whisk you back to the peak on those rare long reeling days.
Rips occur when the energy pushed in by the waves rushes back out to sea. The flowing water always seeks the path of least resistance, so it will concentrate its energy through deeper water, creating narrow channels of current flowing from the beach towards the horizon.
Rips vary greatly, but there are three main types, as Pete explains: “You’ve got fixed rips, where the current is caused by something in the environment, like a pier, jetty, headland, or cluster of rocks.” These rips tend to run adjacent to the feature causing them and although become stronger with bigger, more powerful swells, they’re present on small days too.
“Then you’ve got changing rips,” Pete continues, “which are normally to do with the tide moving over a sand bar and usually occur in the deep portion next to the breaking waves.”
“And then you get flash rips, which are rare.” These occur when a sandbar suddenly collapses and you get a deepwater gulley with current rushing right through the middle of it. “Because it’s flash, it all happens in a second,” explains Pete, “and those are the dramatic ones where you hear of lots of people suddenly needing rescuing.”
While these are harder to avoid altogether than the others, if you keep calm and paddle parallel to the shore in the direction of the nearest breaking waves, you’ll quickly get yourself to a safer part of the beach.
“Often the water in a rip has a different texture, so it’s choppy,” says Pete on how to spot one from the shore, “because the water flows quickly through it. It can also be discoloured with sand or sediment. Often it’ll be adjacent to where the best waves are breaking.”
Lifeguards and local surfers will be happy to point out currents to you, so don’t be afraid to ask before you paddle out. It’s also always worth studying the lineup for a bit before jumping in, ideally from an elevated vantage point like a sand dune or clifftop.
“Five minutes spent looking at it will save you a lot of effort and keep you safer in the surf,” summaries Pete.
There are also lots of good Youtube videos, (like this one from the Gwithian Academy of Surfing) that’ll show you how to spot rips.
Cover photo: @lugarts