You’ve probably heard the saying “Don’t fight the current.” I surely had, but that alone didn’t help us when we got caught by one.
The thing is, if you don’t understand what’s going on, you’re not going to let a massive current carry you out into the open ocean just because people say “Don’t fight the current” in all sorts of contexts.
After all, letting yourself being dragged away from the safety of the beach seems insane — and that’s why I’m afraid you’ll make the same mistakes we did, but not get as lucky, and end up as a washed-up bloated corpse.
So let me share with you what you should actually do when you’re being dragged out into the sea. It’s important information to know the next time you enter the waters of a big ocean, perhaps on an upcoming beach vacation.
But before that, let’s begin with what you shouldn’t do.
What you should NOT do
Let me illustrate what you should not do by telling you of my recent struggle for life.
A few months ago my wife Fabi and I were in Bali, standing on the beach dripping wet, shaken, and pale.
Moments earlier we had both been in the water chasing each other with the water up to our waists. It had been great fun running up and down along the shoreline, letting the waves wash over us.
But after a while, we had exhausted ourselves and entered a deceitfully calm stretch of water located between the crashing waves. So I decided to lie back, to float on the water and rest, with Fabi a few swim strokes away from me.
A minute or so later, I was thrown out of my relaxed state when I heard Fabi’s voice.
“I can’t reach the shore. The water keeps pushing me out,” she said.
I got into a vertical position, only my head poking out of the water, and looked at her surprised: “What?”
“I CAN’T REACH THE SHORE!”
Her eyes were wide and terrified.
I then realized that I couldn’t touch the sand with my feet anymore.
What the heck…
She was closer to the beach than I was and so I swam towards her. And that’s when I noticed the strong current moving directly away from the shore, carrying us both towards the ocean.
This is when our fight for survival began.
My adrenal glands squirted out the now all-important adrenaline and I kept swimming towards her, pushing her repeatedly towards the beach.
But after each push, the current pulled us out again.
Still, I managed to make progress. Little by little, we got closer and closer to the beach. “Don’t give up, don’t give up,” I repeated to myself. Then, when my tired arms already felt like they were about to cramp, one of my feet touched the sand. Then the other. Yes! I
could stand now and although the water was still up to my neck, I could begin to walk. “Keep going, keep going,” I said to myself. “It’s getting easier.” I could now carry Fabi in my arms and after a few more steps, her feet also touched the sand. We were both walking now. Hurray! We had fought the current head-on, beaten it, and finally got out.
“That was close,” I said.
“I’m never going into the water again,” she said.
The story had a happy ending — we both managed to escape the current. However, how we dealt with the ocean’s attempt to suck us out into the open was completely wrong. We could have drowned. We could have died. In fact, we should have died. We had been extremely foolish and just got very lucky.
The saying is true: Do not fight the current head-on. Doing so may exhaust you to the point that you have no more strength to keep afloat and that’s when you drown.
What you should actually do
Take a look at the following image:
As you can see in the above image, a rip current has three main components: two feeders next to the beach, the neck located between two sandbanks, and the head that sits beyond the sandbanks, towards the ocean.
Now, to understand how a rip current works, look at the following animation:
Do you see Fabi and me? Do you see how we’re struggling? How we can’t make any progress because the strong current flowing through the neck of the rip keeps pushing us outwards each time after I push her towards the beach?
This struggle is explained by the movement of water, which is illustrated by the red arrows.
The red arrows start out as waves approaching the sandbars from the right. When the waves hit the sandbars, they are bumped up and topple over, like a stack of cups that are suddenly jerked up. This turns the waves into breakers that are headed straight for the shoreline, where they then end up impacting the beach.
After the impact, the two masses of water on each side of the rip take a 90-degree turn and flow parallel to the beach along the feeder area until they join forces at the base of the rip. And here they turn into one massive current assisted by gravity that rushes straight out onto the ocean by following the path of least resistance between the sandbars.
This massive current is what makes up the neck of the rip and it’s free of waves. It looks like a calm stretch of water, but it’s not. That’s what makes it so deceptive.
Finally, once the mass of water has passed through the narrow gap between the sandbars, it reaches the head of the rip. Here the water disperses and the current dies down.
Now, when Fabi and I were struggling for our lives, we were in the middle of the rip’s neck. And what did we ignorant fools do? We fought the current head-on.
And although we managed to get out, if you look at the flow of water, you’ll notice that fighting the current can’t be the right approach. It’s like trying to get off a treadmill by running as fast as possible.
If someone saw me doing that, they’d just tell me “Dude, what are you doing? If you want to get off the treadmill, either take a step sideways or just stand still and step off once you reach the end of the treadmill.”
It’s exactly the same with a rip current. If you want to escape, either swim parallel to the shore until you’re out of the rip’s neck or, alternatively, give up the fight and stay calm until you reach the head. Once you reach the head, swim towards one of the sandbanks and the breakers will carry you right back to the beach.
Although Fabi and I had been traveling for several months already and even visited a couple of exotic islands with beautiful beaches before, we had been utterly ignorant of rip currents. We had always assumed that where the water is calmest, that’s the safest place to swim.
After all, it’s what seems to make sense if you didn’t grow up near the ocean. But as we learned the hard way, that is absolutely not the case when you’re at a beach in Bali, or at any similar beach where there are waves big enough to surf on.
If you’re as ignorant as we were, a rip current can easily kill you. So if you’re at a beach you don’t know, make sure to ask the locals about the dangers or, better yet, look for lifeguards and only swim under their watch.
And if you get caught by a rip current despite all precautions, remember how they work. They are a treadmill and sprinting forwards is not the way to get off one. Swim sideways or let yourself get carried to the rip’s head. Once you reach the head, you can get back to the beach by following the breakers.
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