As surfers, we love a good rip current. It’s like winning the arm-burn lottery: two strokes and you’re in the lineup. But when your leash breaks–and if you surf long enough, it inevitably will–and you find yourself swimming around the surf, a rip can feel pretty darn scary.
Back when Waterlust first started, we had the opportunity to participate in a series of rip current field experiments in New South Wales, Australia. The effort brought together experts from around the world, including Dr. Ad Reniers from the University of Miami, Dr. Jamie MacMahan from the Naval Postgraduate School, and Dr. Rob Brander from the University of New South Wales.
The experiment was especially exciting for a few reasons. First because the surf was big and the rips were strong, and second because the group was using new approaches to quantify how effective various strategies were at getting out of a rip. Hydrodynamic observations were combined with heart-rate monitor measurements from the swimmers to tie everything together.
So what’s the bottom line? Statistically, floating in place and staying calm is probably your best bet. The researchers found that the majority of rip current systems (including data from elsewhere in the world) induce current patterns that recirculate swimmers back onto an adjacent shallow bar. That isn’t to say it happens all the time, though. Sometimes you’ll get pulled offshore, but most of the time (approximately 75% of the measured instances) you’ll end up back inside the surf zone.