Can Your Child Recognize a Rip Current?

Last updated on March 3rd, 2018 at 11:05 am

The summer I turned 12 I visited my cousins in California. Boogie-boarding in the surf at Santa Monica I had a real scare. A rogue wave flattened me and started dragging me out to sea. 36 years later I can vividly remember the sensation of being in a washing machine, being churned around with the sand scraping against my back and stomach as I was dragged out to sea. The combination of panic and being under water for so long robbed me of the last of my oxygen as I desperately fought to get a foot hold on solid ground. Finally my feet connected with the ocean floor and I stood up – knee deep in water.

I felt foolish, never told my cousins or my aunt. I mean, it’s hard enough being 12, but almost drowning in under 2 feet of water? But I didn’t know. I didn’t understand how to read the ocean and I didn’t know what to do if the water behaved differently than in my local pool and Lake Michigan is a different story from the Pacific Ocean, although just as dangerous if you don’t know what to look for.

When I look at the primary misleading signals that water can give, rip tides or rip currents is probably one of the scariest and least understood, but understanding them prepares you for other events, such as the occasional rogue wave.

I’ll defer to the experts for all the information on rip current, but the most important thing that you need to know, and what you need to teach your children, is how to recognize a rip current, and how to escape if you do get caught.

First, a rip current is a strip of deceptively calm water. On either side you’ll see choppy waves, but the rip current is enticingly, beckoningly smooth. That’s the water heading out at a rate faster than an Olympic swimmer can paddle. So, first step, survey the water, and if you see a flat patch, avoid it.

Second, if you do get caught, don’t try to fight the water, you’ll never win. Swim slowly and steadily sideways, parallel with the shore. You will either be able to eventually leave the rip current or it will spit you out at the end of the rip current and you just need to swim back to shore.

Ideally you have also chosen to swim near a lifeguard and have checked out any signs warning of rip current or dangerous surf, but since water doesn’t always abide by the rules, it’s best to understand how water acts.

Of course the most important message is ‘don’t panic’, but it’s a lot easier to keep yourself, or your child from panicking if they understand what is happening to them, and go with the water instead of fighting it. I think Dora said it best in Finding Nemo, ‘Just keep swimming….just keep swimming’.

About the Author

Global water safety for children is my passion and I can't wait to get up every day to work at it! I blog about water safety regularly at, or you can follow me on Twitter at RebeccaSaveKids. Rebecca is a former member of the PedSafe Expert team


2 Responses to “Can Your Child Recognize a Rip Current?”

  1. Cliff says:

    Was your aunt a so-called native of Cali and didn’t tell you? If so, that was inexcusable. Your cousins don’t necessarily get a pass either but they were kids and kids assume that other kids know what they know.

    Fortunately for me I read an article on rip tides on my way to South Padre Island, TX when I was kid a bit younger than 12. As luck would have it, I also ended up in a rip tide. I tried to jam my feet into the sand when I was still only knee deep in the water but couldn’t hold it. I clearly remember having two thoughts in my head: COOL! and OH NO!! I was entirely comfortable in the water and decided that going limp was my best option. The washing machine analogy you speak of is spot on. I finally felt a weakening of the pull of the water and immediately turned to what felt to be sideways of the current. The pull of the water stopped within seconds and I was in strangely calm water. I poked my head up just in time to have another one foot wave come crashing down on me. I calmly swam back to shore and asked my parents if they saw that. Neither did. There were no lifeguards, at least not where we were.

    I learned a very healthy respect for rip tides specifically and the ocean in general.

    • Cliff,

      So glad you read that article!!! Rip tides can happen in unexpected places. Lake Michigan, my local, is notorious for it’s rip tides, but I just learned that recently. Knowledge is power.


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