Beware of rip currents

By Dr. Wijaya Godakumbura, Pix courtesy Rob Brander

Sea bathing is popular among Sri Lankans but 1,100 people go to a watery grave not only in rivers and wewas but also in the ocean.

The inability to swim or swimming after the consumption of alcohol are some of the causes of these deaths. However, many who get into troubled waters in the sea do not know of the presence of deadly ' rip currents ' at the shore.

What are rip currents?

Waves carry large amounts of water to the beach and after they break on the shore the water has to find its way back to the sea. It has to find an alternative path because that water is often forced sideways by the oncoming waves, obstructing the backward flow. It streams along the shoreline through the surf until it finds an exit back to the sea.

The resulting rip current is usually narrow and located in a trench in deeper channels between sandbars. They are also aptly referred to as 'rivers of the sea'. The danger lies in the fact that this strong surface flow tends to dampen incoming waves leading to the illusion of a particularly calm part of the sea, which may lure some swimmers to that area.

Rip currents are stronger when waves are big and the surf is rough. On long beaches, rips occur every 200 metres or so. They are dangerous because they can carry you 300 feet offshore in under one minute. In Australia, they are said to be the major cause of surf drowning and it may also be so in Sri Lanka even though nobody has identified it as the culprit.

Drowning follows exhaustion while fighting the rip current. They can be deadly for non-swimmers too because a person standing waist deep in water can be dragged into deeper waters, where they can drown if they are not wearing a floatation device. Rips can flow faster than champion swimmers! Their speed is usually 1-2 feet/second but can even increase to six feet/second. Like killer whales in the ocean, these are the 'killer currents'. Surfers, however, like them, as they can court rips to get back into the sea with less effort.

How to spot a rip

There are three types of rips, with ‘fixed rips’ being the commonest. They occur when waves are smaller or have not changed for a while and appear as dark and calmer areas that extend offshore between the white areas of breaking waves.

Therefore, before getting into the water, spend a few minutes watching the surf for these dark gaps that often carry sea weed and other floating objects. Like crossing a road only after looking both ways and making sure that no vehicles are heading your way, do not get into the water without looking for rips.
On beaches patrolled by lifeguards, remember to swim only in the area marked by flags.

What to do when caught in a rip?

  • Do not panic. A rip will not pull you under water, but carry you further out to sea.
  • Never try to swim against a rip because you can’t. You will tire yourself and risk your life. Remain calm and try to swim across -- parallel to the beach line and get away from it like stepping off a running treadmill. The locations to aim for are places where waves are breaking. In these areas, floating objects are generally transported towards the shore.
  • Stay afloat, go with the flow and signal for help by putting your hand up.

Dr. Wijaya Godakumbura is a surgeon and member of the National Committee for Injury Prevention. He made a presentation at the Second World Conference on Drowning Prevention held in Vietnam in May this year. The information in this article is from a poster made by Dr. Rob Brander of the University of New South Wales, Australia (

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