Rip Currents Danger

School students and international tourists need to learn to recognise danger signs in the surf such as rip currents and cannot keep relying on swimming between the flags to ensure their safety, an authority on beach safety says.

If you get caught in a rip

  • Stay calm: your body is naturally buoyant and the current is not going to pull you under
  • Float and raise your arm if you need help
  • If you feel confident, swim parallel to the shoreline towards the white water, where it will be shallower and the waves will help you get back to shore
  • Do NOT try to swim against the rip straight back to the shore

Associate Professor Rob Brander, from the University of New South Wales, said the red and yellow flags were an extremely effective way to keep people safe, but Australia had a big coastline and it was not possible to patrol every stretch of beach.

“It is rare for people to drown between the flags, but we simply don’t have enough flags,” he said.

“There are so many unpatrolled beaches around that are easily accessible and trying to get people who choose to swim at those beaches to not go in the water or to be safe or to drive a fair distance to find a patrolled beach is hard.

“We have to motivate people to be safe somehow.”

Purple dye shows the flow of a rip current at Tamarama Beach in Sydney in 2010.

Associate Professor Brander said school students and international tourists should be targeted.

“We have to be a bit more creative to get people to swim between the flags and to recognise dangerous conditions when they see them,” he said.

“We hear the message to swim between the flags so often that we kind of switch off, and there’s a dangerous complacency about swimming at unpatrolled beaches.

Rips scatter Bondi Beach in Sydney.

“If you don’t understand things like rip currents and dangerous breaking waves, and you are not a good swimmer, you are at such incredible risk when you swim at an unpatrolled beach.

“We have to motivate people to swim between the flags and give them information about what to avoid on an unpatrolled beach or at least what they should be thinking about when they are on an unpatrolled beach.”

A 22-year-old university student drowned at Duranbah Beach, just south of the Queensland border, on Christmas Day.

‘Go where the guardians are’

Gold Coast chief lifeguard Warren Young said patrolled areas offered the greatest security for swimmers.

“I think education has a part to play for sure, but more people watching at the isolated spots especially is really important — especially in the Australian summer,” he said.

“We are really saying ‘go where the guardians are’ — where the lifeguards and professional people are and the lifesavers.

“If you go for a swim on an open beach on this coastline and if you are not a surfer or an experienced surf lifesaver and you have no floatation and your kids get into trouble, someone’s going to drown.

“I can’t say enough the tragedy of a family going for a swim on an isolated beach and every parent would do the same. They respond and usually the parent drowns.”

Tips for staying safe at the beach:

Recognise your own swimming ability

  • People should look at the ocean conditions and ask, “Should I be going in?”
  • Don’t let peer pressure get to you, and use your common sense
  • If you’re not the strongest swimmer, stick to the sand banks in knee deep water, and always go in with a boogie board tied to your wrist

Learn to spot a rip – ‘white is right, green is mean’

  • Don’t go into the calmest area of water — that’s where a rip could be
  • Look for white water — wherever there are waves breaking and running into a beach, there’s likely to be a sand bank there
  • Avoid going in on windy and choppy days where rips are impossible to read
  • Understand that rips are extremely dangerous and have killed many people

Never swim alone

  • Swim in a group and where other surfers are visible

What if someone else is in trouble?

  • Assess your own swimming ability before going in to help. Otherwise, raise the alarm
  • A flotation device is the key. It will help both of you stay afloat

If you’re caught in a rip without a flotation device:

  • Keep calm and importantly, don’t panic
  • Most rips either return you back to shore or eddy you out to the waves where you can catch one back to shore
  • Beware that strong currents at river mouths can pull you straight out to sea