February 22, 2024
surfing rip currents

Staying Safe While Surfing Rip Currents

The thrill of surfing can quickly become terrifying if a powerful rip current pulls you swiftly out to sea. These sometimes deadly currents flowing away from shore pose an underestimated threat for those swimming and surfing rip current.s 

Though most common on beaches with breaking waves, rip currents also catch people unaware near rocky outcroppings, piers, or jetties. The best prevention is to try to spot a rip current before you enter the ocean, but even the most experienced of surfers can get caught in a rip. 

Whether you are a seasoned vet or a total newbie to surfing,  some insights from this guide could one day save your or someone else’s life.

Let’s dive in! 

Riding the Rip: How to Surf Safely Among Riptides

Rip currents can rapidly pull unsuspecting surfers away from shore and cause accidents if improper safety precautions are taken. 

By understanding what causes these hazardous conditions and learning key survival skills, you can continue catching big waves safely for years to come.

Rip currents, sometimes referred to as “riptides,” are fast-moving belts of water flowing away from shore. They form when waves break near the shoreline, piling up water between sandbars or along structures like piers.

surfing riptides

What Triggers Deadly Rip Currents

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration or NOAA simply categorizes a rip current as a powerful channeled current.

The water then rushes back out to sea through these narrow gaps at speeds up to 8 feet per second – faster than an Olympic swimmer!

Where Rip Currents Occur

A rip current or rip tide is one of those surfing terms that we have all probably heard. Currents most typically form at low spots or breaks in sandbars, as well as alongside jetties and piers. Their locations may shift with changing surf conditions. Winter swells can sometimes strengthen their intensity.

spotting a rip current

Channel Openings Between Sandbars

Watch for openings between sandbars where churning surf signals rapidly rushing waters. These rip current channels should be avoided when possible while surfing.

Structures like Piers and Jetties

Areas adjacent to piers and jetties can disrupt waves and cause dangerous currents to form, so be vigilant when surfing near these structures.

where rip currents occur

What to Do if you Get Caught in a Rip Current while Surfing

According to the National Weather service, a strong swimmer cannot outswim a rapidly moving rip current.

Before paddling out, always check with lifeguards on the latest beach flags, signals and surf reports. Red flags indicate hazardous swimming and surfing conditions.

Ask About Wave Heights and Rips with a Lifeguard

In addition to flags, speak directly with lifeguards about the day’s surf conditions and frequency of rips to make most informed decisions before surfing. Get to know the surf beach nuances if you are heading to a new spot. If it’s your local beach, over time you will learn the little subtleties that can create rips at certain stages of the tide or on a particular swell direction.

swimming in a rip current

Identify Rip Current Escape Routes

Ask lifeguards to identify potential rip current hot spots and the best parallel escape routes you can take if caught in one unexpectedly.

If Caught, Don’t Fight It

Panic is one of the main causes of drowning among rip current victims. Avoid hyperventilating and vigorously trying to swim back against it. 

Try to relax – easy to say, but difficult in reality I know.

Remain Calm, Tread Water and Wait for Rescue

Conserve energy until the current weakens, then swim parallel to shore or angle to a surf zone to make your way back.

Beware of Exhaustion

Older or not-so-fit surfers should take extra care in avoiding rip currents or signal for quick rescue before tiredness heightens the chance of drowning.

Another factor that can cause exhaustion is what you are wearing in the water. Swimming in a surfing wetsuit or board shorts is decidedly easier than regular clothing – I say this because I have seen many people caught out by large waves crashing onto the shore and taking them into the ocean. If you are wearing a lot of clothing, just keeping afloat can be tricky.

Use Smart Escape Techniques when Surfing Rip Currents

Once beyond the narrow rush of water, calmer waters allow different strategies to get back to shore safely.

Float with the Current – Try to get to the Beach

Relaxing and floating conserves energy as the current carries you outward and eventually subsides offshore.

Swim Parallel to Shore

Escaping sideways by swimming parallel to land moves you out of the worst turbulence so you can angle back to shore more easily.

Back Floating and Wave Positioning without Drowning

Rolling onto your back while floating sets you up to breathe easily. It also positions you to ride swells when they come.

By knowing the causes of rips, heeding warning signs, and employing these survival skills if caught, you can continue to enjoy the thrill of surfing for a lifetime.

surfing rip currents

Surfing Rip Currents Q & A

Do surfers get caught in rip currents?

Yes, unfortunately even experienced surfers do sometimes get caught unexpectedly in dangerous rip currents. Rip currents often occur suddenly and shift locations, catching people off guard.

Should you surf in a rip current?

You should not intentionally try surfing rip currents, but if caught in one, skilled surfers have some advantages. Using a flotation device like a board, they can float until the current weakens. Then they can paddle parallel to shore to exit the channelized rush of water before angling back to land.

How to surfers deal with rip currents?

To deal with rip currents while surfing, surfers check wave and hazard forecasts before going out. They identify areas prone to rips and have an escape plan to swim out of the current by paddling laterally along the beach instead of fighting back directly oncoming waves. Staying calm, floating when tired, and signaling for quick rescue reduces drowning risk.

How do you not drown when surfing?

To avoid drowning when surfing, always wear leash tethers in case you separate from your board. 

Don’t panic if caught in turbulence, float first then paddle parallel to shore. It’s also critical to know your limits and catch smaller reform waves when exhausted rather than take on bigger walls of water that can overwhelm you. Staying within designated surf areas and your abilities are key safety precautions.

What are the most dangerous rip currents in California?

The most hazardous rip currents in California occur along open ocean-facing beaches rather than within sheltered bays. 

Prime danger zones include Long Beach, several Orange County beaches, most Los Angeles County beaches, the Santa Monica and Malibu coasts, as well as Central California’s Morro Bay.

What months see higher rip current activity?

While rip currents occur year-round, late summer and early fall tends to bring an uptick due to seasonal south swells that produce larger surfs. 

Peak tourist months from May through August also host bigger crowds with more swimmers caught unaware in rips.

Do rip currents on Hawaiian shores behave differently than on California beaches?

Yes, Hawaii’s steep underwater topography makes nearshore rip currents swift, narrow and especially dangerous. Hawaii rips pull directly offshore even just beyond the surf zone, unlike California where the seafloor slopes more gradually, allowing currents to dissipate in calmer shallows before reaching deeper waters.

How rip currents can be identified before entering the water?

Look for telltale signs like visible channels cut through the incoming waves, visible debris washing out far offshore, color or texture differences indicating deeper churning waters, and breaks in the approaching wave sets. 

Ask lifeguards specifically about variable conditions.

Are riptides getting worse with rising ocean temperatures?

While climate impacts on rip currents require more research, some studies suggest warming seas could bring higher storm surges and unusual swell behavior that may increase occurrences of strong rips along windward shores and affect times of year they appear.


  • Matt Hapgood

    Matt Hapgood is a father, surfer, and entrepreneur. He has worn many hats in his career, from being a removal guy in Vancouver to teaching elementary kids in the UK, as well as a parking valet in the French Alps. He’s the founder and main contributor to MattHapgood.com and is currently living in the Algarve, Portugal