Staying Safe on Holiday: What Does a Riptide Look Like?

19th December, 2022, in Travel Advice & Guides

A beach holiday is always a popular choice for families, couples, surfers and those who just like to hear the swishing of the waves. However, despite the stunning sunsets, seaside activities and beachside bars, there are a few parts of the ocean that do pose a seismic risk to those who want to enjoy the water.

A riptide or rip current is one such risk, and is the cause of many deaths across the world. They move fast and can cause problems for people in the sea, regardless of their swimming or sailing ability. You may often see riptides and rip currents referred to as the same thing despite a few differences.

With obvious signifiers of its presence, a riptide can be identified by lifeguards, sailors, divers and swimmers before they even approach the water. Thanks to this, people can avoid a potentially dangerous situation.

Some people say they look like a road that is heading out further into the sea, others might compare them to a river that runs through the sea, dividing into two sections. Looking at them from above would clearly show where the riptide is.

How to spot a riptide

For some, a riptide provides a great surfing opportunity. For others, though, it is a dangerous occurrence that could put lives at risk. Luckily, a riptide is quite distinguishable. Along with the look that a road, river or pathway is diving the sea, you can spot one through other features, too.

Breaks in the wave patterns

A riptide can also be spotted due to a break in the wave pattern. The water would appear flat at the riptide yet rippled on either side of it.

A foam-like river

You may spot a foam-like river at the surface of the riptide. This would be because the current is carrying the foam from the surf to the open water.

Different colours in the water

The riptide may have a more cloudy, muddy appearance due to the way it forms. In addition, depending on how the light catches it, it could look significantly darker, or lighter, than the water around it.

Debris and foam moving away from the shore

Where items are normally bought towards the shore, in a riptide you will see a section of foam, and perhaps debris being pushed away from the shore whilst the same elements on either side of the rip, you will see items coming closer to shore.

How are riptides formed?

Riptides can form in a variety of ways and there are three types to know about.

A flash rip can appear and disappear very quickly. This will be because of decreasing water levels or increasing wave heights.

A fixed rip forms between sand bars and could end up being present for days, weeks and in some cases, months.

A permanent rip is exactly what it says it is. One that will not disappear. This is because it is stuck in a permanent obstacle such as a reef.

They form through the process of wind and breaking waves pushing surface water towards the land, this causes a slight rise in water level along the shore. This water will then look to move back towards open water via the least resistant route. They will form by the coasts of oceans, seas or large lakes, whenever there are waves of sufficient energy.

Why are riptides dangerous?

Current statistics show that around 80% of rescues carried out by beach lifeguards are due to riptides/currents. They are particularly dangerous due to the speeds they can move at. They will normally move at approximately 1.6 feet per second, but can move as quickly as 8.2 feet per second, a speed no human would be able to counteract. However, many of them are narrow and swimmers can escape them relatively easily if they swim at a right angle to the flow and parallel to the shore.

Most accidents or deaths caused by riptides are in fact down to the panic that sets in and that those in the water exhaust themselves by swimming against the flow and end up drowning.

When caught in a riptide, a person will find themselves moving away from shore quite fast. Attempting to swim to shore and therefore against the riptide is unlikely to work. A riptide does not pull someone underwater, instead, it pulls them away from the shore. As a result, it is recommended that someone caught in a strong riptide should float/tread water and allow themselves to be carried beyond the surf line. From here it will be possible to either swim back to shore or signal for help. However, this is always the case and if a riptide is present, it would always be advisable to stay out of the water to remain safe.

How to escape a riptide

There are a few things you can do to stop yourself from succumbing to the forces of a riptide/current:

  • If the current is not too strong, you may be able to regain your footing and stop yourself from being carried out further
  • Alert people on shore by shouting or waving – any type of signal that will show people you are in distress
  • Swim perpendicular to the current. With them being fairly narrow, you should be able to get to the other side of it
  • Once clear of the current, swim diagonally to the shore. This will stop you from getting caught in the current again. Being free of the current means you can stop and rest if you start to feel tired

Whenever you go to the beach, always check weather conditions, lifeguard availability and any safety information. A holiday should be fun, not full of stress or concern.


We use this thought process with our car hire excess insurance. We don’t want your holiday to end up costing you more in both money and emotion. Protecting yourself with holiday car excess insurance means that there will not be any of those costly expenses that often lead to you having a less enjoyable time. Speak to our team or get a free quote online today to see how we can keep you covered on holiday.


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