Washington's Coast
Washington State Department of Ecology

big waves
rip currents
sneaker waves

Rip current
Currents pulling out
Rip currents are strong swift currents rushing from shore out to sea. Rip currents form when longshore currents, which move parallel to the beach, turn seaward. Rip currents can occur where there is a break in a nearshore sandbar or where current is directed by a jetty or a groin. Some rip currents last for a few hours; others are permanent. Rip currents range from 50 to 100 feet or more in width. They can extend up to 1000 feet offshore.
Rip current, Ocean Shores, April 1998

Rip current, Ocean Shores, April 1998.
Signs of a rip current
  • darker water, indicating deep water
  • murky brown water, due to stirred up sand or increased depth
  • waves breaking further out on both sides of a rip
  • debris floating out to sea
  • foamy or choppy surface
Also called an undertow
Rip currents are sometimes called an "undertow." Rip currents, however, mainly pull out. People in shallow water can be caught in rip currents and quickly pulled out into deep water. Water in a rip current flows seaward at about 3 to 6 feet per second -- faster than most people can swim.
If you are caught in a rip current
  • Don't panic.
  • Swim parallel to shore until you are out of the current.
  • If you can't break out, tread water and float. Call or wave for help.
  • Stay at least 100 feet away from piers and jetties. Rip currents often occur in these areas.
Rip embayment, Ocean Shores, 1998 Rip currents can cause severe erosion. Rip currents can strip as much as 6.5 feet of elevation off the beach, leaving crescent-shaped embayments. Ocean Shores, North Beach, 1998.
Rip currents are fed by currents that run parallel to the shore. These currents then turn out to sea. Outside the breaker zone, the current ends in a rip head.
Source: The Southwest Washington Coastal Erosion Study.
Images courtesy of: Brian Voigt; Greg Pelletier.

Rip Currents, National Weather Service, NOAA Rip current formation, safety tips, and links.

Rip Currents, North Carolina Sea Grant, pdf file. How rip currents work. What to do if you are caught in a rip current.

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