Rips and Ocean Swimmers

If you are neither a good swimmer nor an experienced ocean swimmer, or if you don’t swim with someone who is, swim between the flags on a patrolled beach, and don’t swim alone.

No swimmer ever conquers the ocean. The sea requires the utmost respect from all those who submit themselves to it. The ocean is never trying to kill you. But if you fail to respect it, you can die there.

Standing on an ocean shore estimating how far it would be to swim to some identified point offshore, frequently results in under-estimation.

Standing on an ocean shore assessing wave size and power and how rough the water is offshore, frequently results in under-estimation.

Warning: I wrote this post with ocean swimmers in mind and because I wanted to record in one place my thoughts about rips. Others are unlikely to find this post interesting.

Ocean water moves around a lot, on scales ranging from global to local. The photos and observations below are about ocean currents close to shore as they affect ocean swimmers.

Swell direction, breaking waves, tides, wind and gravity can cause small but powerful localised currents within and extending beyond the surf zone. Ocean swimmers have an interest in understanding these currents which flow from the shallows out to sea beyond the shorebreak, either directly or at an angle. Such currents, known as rips, can be a metre or so wide, and they can flow quite slowly and extend only a short distance from shore. Sometimes they can be many tens of metres wide and flow away from shore at a speed which it is not possible to swim against. Sometimes they may extend many hundreds of metres beyond shore and connect to strong tidal currents with potential to take a swimmer to the next postcode. A swimmer in a rip who takes no active steps to leave the current will typically be carried out to deeper water beyond the shorebreak where the rip will fade and end.

Whether or not a particular rip poses a threat to the safety of a particular swimmer in a particular set of conditions depends on a lot of factors: the skill and experience level of the swimmer, the level of detail of the swimmer’s knowledge of the beach where the rip is located, the size, location, direction and strength of the rip, the size and power of the swell, the direction from which the swell has come relative to the direction the beach faces, the contours of the seabed in the vicinity, the general gradient of the seabed in the area, the nature of any reefs or other relief features beneath the water, the direction and strength of the wind and the surface conditions they are creating, the presence or absence of gutters and sandbars and their distance from shore, whether the beach is long and straight or a bay bookended with points or promontories, the tidal range on the day and whether the tide is ebbing, flowing or in the slack water period (if any).

Permanent warning at the eastern end of Skenes Creek beach.

Some rips are highly transient and can appear and disappear in seconds or minutes. These typically occur at beaches with sandy seabeds. Others flow like rivers following permanent rocky channels on the seabed whenever the surf is up and water washed ashore above its natural level heads back out to sea via the nearest line of least resistance. Some rips operate only when a big set (of waves) has come through, and others operate in very small surf.

Importantly, rips are often easier to see from a vantage point on the shore than they are while swimming. But some rips can be invisible from the shore, especially in rough surface conditions such as occur in strong winds with a lot of breaking waves and chop. The photos below illustrate a variety of visible rips at ocean beaches on the west coast of Victoria. The comments under the photos point out some of the tell-tale signs of visible rips.

It is highly instructive as an exercise or when you are planning a swim, to sit on the dunes and closely observe the behaviour of the water in and near the surf zone. This is especially so if you are unfamiliar with that beach. If you watch for say 15 minutes you will see transient currents and recurring patterns. You will begin to understand that the water is telling you a lot more than you learned from your first glance. Look left and right up and down the surf zone – identify gutters, sandbars (evidenced by waves breaking a distance offshore then reforming as green unbroken waves as they pass over the deeper water of the gutter closer to shore), and places where rips have cut through sandbars to feed water back out to sea. Is there a single gutter and sandbar, or a series of gutters and sandbars extending well beyond the shore? See if you can work out which way water is flowing in the gutter/s between the shore and a sandbar (at some points on the beach, this direction can be opposite to the direction of tidal flow beyond the sandbar/s). Observe the long line of a breaking wave and note that there may be sections or gaps where the wave does not break at all (because the water is a little deeper under such a gap). The gap could well be where a rip flows out to sea. If you identify where you think there is a rip, note its position relative to landmarks on the shore to assist in your decision making once in the water.

One fact that can always be relied upon is that if there are waves breaking and water washing back and forth at the water’s edge, gravity will cause the water temporarily transported above its natural level to return to that level as soon as the force washing it ashore ceases. Even though it might not be visible, its presence can be deduced, and an educated guess may be possible as to its location. But knowing there are rips but not knowing exactly where they are, in conditions that are rough, might well be enough reason to exercise the skill every ocean swimmer should possess – making an informed decision as to when not to swim.

Any rip of substance can be detected by a swimmer in the water once they are in the rip. The water is usually murkier than the water around it (due to sand etc being picked up by the rip in the shallows and carried seaward), the texture of the surface where there is a rip differs (often in subtle ways) from the surface texture of surrounding water (because there are conflicting flow directions), and of course the swimmer will be carried away from the shore – sometimes at 90° and sometimes at a lesser angle. Because the swimmer is being carried by a moving body of water, there is no sense of a current pushing against the swimmer whose feet are not touching the seabed. The fact of heading seaward is not always immediately apparent. It is important to develop the skill of being able to quickly assess by observation whether or not a current is taking you somewhere unplanned. Lining up two objects some distance apart while treading water and observing their apparent movement (if any) is one way to do this. If this can be done in two different directions separated by 90° or at least a significant angle, a very accurate assessment of drift (either due to a rip or a tidal current) can be made.

Swimming against a strong current (assume no wind or waves for present purposes) is no harder than swimming with such a current. You will just cover a shorter distance in a given number of minutes when swimming against the current than you would if there was no current (and a longer distance when swimming with the current). Or put another way, at a constant stroke rate and stroke distance it will take you longer to swim 1000m against the current than with the current. What the current changes is the speed at which you pass over the seabed – your speed through the water stays the same whichever direction you swim. This is illustrated by the fact that if you stand in shallow water in a flowing river, you will feel the current on the upstream side of your body. But if you tread water in the same flowing river, you will not feel any current on any side of your body because you are moving with the flowing body of water.

That said, when there is a strong wind blowing across the surface of the sea, swimming against the wind will be quite a different experience to swimming with the wind behind you. It takes more effort to swim into the wind when it is creating waves and chop than it does to swim with the wind behind you, in the same direction as the wind, waves and chop.

A myth that seems to enjoy currency in some circles is that a rip in the ocean will pull you under the surface. It won’t.

While I’m debunking myths, here is another: an out and back swim of a given distance with a constant current (head current one way, following current the other way) will take no longer than the same out and back swim in nil current because the time you lose on the way out you gain on the way back. This is incorrect. The total time for the round trip swim into and then with the current will always take longer.

An essential ocean swimming skill is to maintain situational awareness at all times – don’t just swim around without regular reference to the shore and landmarks. If you do, you could find when you eventually assess your location that you have been carried hundreds of metres sideways or out to sea by a rip (and/or tidal currents). The response to becoming aware you are swimming in a current might be as simple as adding a drift angle to your swim (aim a bit left or right of where you want to go so that you track directly there) or altering course significantly to get away from the current if it is not assisting you, or making and executing a plan to return to shore.

Many of the photos below utilise a ‘photo-compare’ function. The round button in the middle with a left and right arrow allows you to use your cursor (hold it over the button and press) to slide the divider fully right (which displays the full first image) and fully left (displaying the full second image). Where the slider is used, the first photo is of ocean water with a rip, and the second is the same image with an arrow or arrows pointing out the location of the rip.

Apollo Bay

Especially in strong easterly conditions, this rip extends out from very close to the beach between the SLSC and the harbour wall to the harbour mouth and sometimes beyond. It flows out to sea parallel to the stone harbour wall. The rip is easily identified by the discolouration from the sand and by the turbulent surface appearance resulting from the current going east out to sea while the wind and waves are heading west towards the shore. In most wind and swell conditions this corner of the bay is sufficiently benign to be known by locals as Mothers’ Beach. Failure to respond to changes such as those shown in the photo has resulted in many people having an unexpected little trip out beside the harbour wall on their boogie board, surf board or while swimming. Surfers and others have often provided assistance to those who found themselves in the rip in this area.
Rips start their flow out to sea using the path of least resistance. The water heading back out to sea flows around obstructions and follows depressions or gutters or gaps in reefs or valleys in the sea floor. Large variations in seabed gradient are not required to attract such currents. This photo shows the main beach at Apollo Bay between the SLSC and the harbour wall on a very low tide. The water flow shown in the photo is coming in from the left and right via shallow gutters and flowing seawards as a single stream through a gap in the sandbar. This is great illustration of the (usually underwater) mechanisms at play in creating a rip. On a high tide there with good swell there is a gentle rip that goes out 100-150m or so at this location.
Very low tide at beach at the end of my street. The swimmer is on the sandbar and the water in the foreground is the start of a gutter. When there is surf this gutter often flows to the left and waves which break over the sandbar can reform as unbroken waves while they travel over the deeper water in the gutter.
I have included this photo because it is on a half tide with very little swell, yet the tell tale signs of water flowing back out to sea are evident along the line indicated by the arrow in the second image. The contrasting surface state of the ripples over the rip with the adjacent water is a feature which is often very visible on days of bigger swell and choppier seas. This surface ripple feature of a rip is one of the signs that is noticeable to the observant swimmer in the water. Visibility in such a rip is usually also noticeably less than in the water either side of it. When swimming parallel to the beach offshore beyond the surf zone, I often swim through such ripples and sandy water for half a dozen or more strokes where the water clears up again as I complete my crossing of the rip. This is easily recognised as the head of a rip. Encountering such a feature is mildly interesting and requires no diversion.
Easterly conditions at Apollo Bay. Wind waves and the general pushing of water into the bay by a solid easterly create a lot of water that flows back out to sea under water in and near the surf zone. It is certain that there are rips and gutters in the water shown. But in such winds (probably in the 15-20 knot range) the organised rip contrasting very visibly with adjacent water is simply not readily discernible. The green water just above the horizontal handrail on the right suggests at least a bit of a hole there, possibly part of a gutter. There would be a current roughly parallel to the beach in that water which would be felt if you waded through it. Beyond that green water the breaking waves clearly show the position of the sandbar. The water would be shallower there than in the gutter. Out beyond the sandbar where there are whitecaps but no breaking waves such as in the shallower water there would be deeper water and a tidal drift possibly a little stronger than you would find in non-easterly conditions. My guess from experience at this beach is that the tidal current beyond the sandbar would be going south (left to right in the image). The green water above the RH rail seems to be angling towards shore with the white water over the shallow sandbar also being closer to shore. Coming ashore from this sandbar would be easier where the shallow water comes closest to shore and the gutter is narrowest or non-existent. But such speculation aside, if this was a beach unknown to a swimmer, while it may be swimmable for some there are sufficient unknowns about the strength, extent and location of currents to justify deferring the swim until the next day or whenever the wind changed around to a more favourable direction.

Castle Cove

Castle Cove is a wild beach west of Cape Otway. It is located at the western end of the Glen Aire valley and is exposed totally to the weather and ocean swells from the Southern Ocean. It is not a spot for casual ocean swimming. Experienced surfers with local knowledge surf here. On this wintery day conditions were a bit wild and ragged with strong onshore winds and a solid swell. The main rip in this bay is the one shown on the left as highlighted by the straight section of the orange arrow. As shown in the photo immediately below it feeds out in a continuous line from very close to the beach on the eastern end of the beach, through and over the reefs to the outer reef and beyond. This rip is always evident in the same spot when there is surf, indicating that it flows through a permanent channel in the reef to deeper water offshore. On the right of this image, the body of green water between the inner reef (white water) and the next wider reef offshore (more whitewater and breaking waves) is interesting. I have no doubt that water from the left hand side of this deeper area feeds into the main rip identified by the ‘tributary’ arrow. The large area of green water on the right of the image just above the portion of clifftop can feed into the permanent rip on the left, but I have seen it on occasions flowing seaward to the right of the image out to the reef with the extensive white water. Swell size and wind strength and direction seem to play a role in where this water flows. Examine the different conditions in the next photo and note the different behaviour of the deeper green water on the right of the image.
Notice the deep gutter with no breaking waves directly adjacent to the beach on the right of the image.
This is a closeup of the water over a section of the permanent rip channel on the eastern side of the bay to show the qualitative difference in the surface water conditions when there is a rip flowing, as compared to the water surface either side of the rip. Note the water colour, the absence of breaking waves, the presence of small peaks and the tiny whitecaps. These are unequivocal indicators that the current there is flowing contrary to the flow of water either side of it. If you were minded to surf here on this day, such a rip would provide a convenient and easy paddle out through the surf zone.

Gibson Steps

Gibson Steps is another wild west coast beach facing the full onslaught of the Southern Ocean. It is next to the Twelve Apostles. Uneven rock reef extends hundreds of metres out to sea here, and there are solid permanent and transient rips aplenty. The orange arrow shows a channel with a rip flowing out through the surf. The yellow arrow shows the head of a rip which has reached deeper water and is dispersing. The sand carried out and the swirling currents assume a more circular shape where the reef stops heading seaward and terminates.
A narrow rip flowing through a channel near the eastern end of the beach.

The following three photos were taken in rapid succession and show a rip undergoing changes quite rapidly over a short period of time.

Out the back the rip was partially concealed by incoming surf. The channel was quite visible in closer to shore, where it clearly divided the white water.

In this relative lull between sets the rip was clearly visible as it flowed through the surf zone out the back.

The yellow arrow shows a smaller rip extending right through the surf zone to deeper water. You can see the mushrooming sandy water and isolated chop and texture near the head of the arrow, where this rip flowed into deeper water and ended.
Gibson Steps on a very different day. Offshore wind and big swell. This surfer had to paddle out through over 300m of reefs, rips and white water to get to the takeoff point for this wave.

Johanna

Johanna is another exposed west coast beach, not far west of Castle Cove. It has sand dunes on the main beach and cliffs and reefs extend from the western end of the beach. There are numerous reefs here, and pronounced strong rips and gutters. It is the alternative surf break for the Easter Bells surfing competition when there is not enough swell at Bells. The rip in this photo has the visible rip attributes referred to earlier – no breaking waves and surface texture obviously rippled as the rip flows against the direction of the water either side of it.
Closeup showing the marked texture differences in the water surface where the rip is flowing.
These small and irregular little peaks are typically formed where a rip is flowing against the direction of the surrounding currents.
This rip at the western end of the beach is going out through the surf break at an angle.
Note that the actual channel of this rip takes a right hand turn as it nears the deeper water. This was not apparent from the previous photo taken a very short time before this shot. It pays to examine the water from the shore for longer than an initial glance.
This small flow away from the shore is technically a rip. I have included it because it displays very clearly the textural differences in the water surface between a rip and adjacent water. This texture difference is a clue as to the location of a rip and is easy to see when swimming.

Marengo (Mounts Bay)

Mounts Bay, immediately south of Apollo Bay, has stronger rips, gutters, swell and shorebreak than Apollo Bay. This temporary looking sign was put up by the local council last summer after an incident in which there was a near drowning at the beach in Mounts Bay near the mouth of the Barham River. Lives would have been lost had rescuers not gone to assist the swimmers in distress. Lives have been lost at this beach in conditions that could not be described as wild or rough – the cause was rips that took weak swimmers out of their depth.

Where a river, creek or drain enters the ocean expect uneven depth of the seabed and rips and currents in the immediate vicinity.

At the southern end of Mounts Bay, Little Henty Reef lies close to shore. I have included this photo because I find the currents here more difficult to read from the shore than at other ocean beaches where I swim at regularly. The currents in this area are complex because of the following features: the shape and orientation of the reefs which are divided by deep channels, Hayleys Point nearby around which large swell flows, offshore underwater parts of the reef that are quite irregular in shape, area and depth, and variable water depths of some significance. Sometimes identifiable rips and tidal flows can be seen here, but on many occasions, strong and variable rips and tidal flows that are not visible from the shore can be present. I have encountered strong tidal currents here in conditions as shown in the photo. I treat this beach with considerable caution. I have often experienced three distinctly different currents in the short swim in conditions as shown from the shore to the closest reef. The water on left of this image is around 10 feet deep, but at the other end of the small reef the water between there and shore is over 30 feet deep. There is so much more happening here than at a beach with the standard gutter, sandbar and rip setup close to shore. I like to snorkel around this reef and take photos. To swim out to it I aim for a prominent rock in the middle of the closest reef which I line up with Cape Patton on the horizon 17kms to the north east. Close attention to these markers lets me see early and constantly what if any current I am dealing with. If they reveal that the current looks like taking me north or south of the reef before I will reach the reef and is such that even 45° or more of drift correction is not doing the job, I turn around and swim back to shore. And I do this even on a day where the water still looks calm. My guesses from the shore as to currents here are improving, but not based on what I see so much as by reference to previous swims here in similar conditions.
Just north of Little Henty Reef the shorebreak can have a bit of punch to it. This photo shows the tell tale trail of sand heading out to sea in a couple of rips. These rips are narrow, flowing quite fast, and transient. On this day they died off in the longer lulls between sets of waves. Swimming across them to water where there was not a rip would be the obvious thing to do, but care would need to be taken that the next rip was spotted in time so good choices could be made. Also, swimming north beyond the shorebreak on this beach takes you to progressively bigger waves and stronger permanent and temporary rips going some distance out to sea. Further, as the photo shows, the sandbars extend further offshore up the northern end of this curved beach, with a correspondingly wider surf zone. Frankly, I’d find somewhere else to swim in these conditions at this location.
More subtle rips just north of Little Henty Reef heading well out into deep water.

Storm Point, Smythes Creek, Sledgehammers

This small bay and point are near Storm Point, a km or so west of Marengo on the Great Ocean Walk. Small rips going out parallel and close to a rock shelf or other terrain on the edge of bay are common. The surf on this day was very small yet the rip channel on the seabed (probably more rock than sand) is clearly defined by the green water and is probably a permanent feature. If a swimmer floated out in this tiny rip even in these conditions of virtually no surf the current may be enough to drift the swimmer slowly seawards for a short distance. Obviously, swimming to the shallower water on the right where there is evidence of small waves breaking would remove you from any such current and swimming/walking ashore there would be simple. This is a micro model for similarly situated larger rips, and one way to get out of them.
Smythes Creek on the Great Ocean Road east of Apollo Bay is a popular surf break, but not on messy onshore days like this. This photo shows two feeder rips joining forces and heading out through the surf zone to deeper water.
This point break is known locally as Sledgehammers. It is situated between Apollo Bay and Cape Patton. It has open exposure to the south west and big swells hit here without much change of direction which means they arrive here with a lot of force. The shore has reefs and rock shelves and is not user friendly in big surf. There was clean surf this day with an offshore wind. The orange arrow shows a very clear and quite substantial rip heading straight out to sea. In such conditions this rip is easily spotted and could be utilised (to assist in the paddle out the back) or avoided by surfers.

Logans Beach, Warrnambool

Logans Beach is a whale nursery near Warrnambool. It is also a popular surf spot. I have seen this highly visible rip on repeat visits here. There is obviously a permanent channel where this rip is flowing out through the surf break. On the day this photo was taken I watched a surfer enter the water in this rip and get a speedy ride out to his takeoff point in this rip; highly preferable to paddling out against breaking waves and duck diving the surfboard under them.

Lorne

This photo was taken from the southern side of Louttit Bay at Lorne, looking north east. The SLSC buildings and main beach are left of this image. This was a light wind day with small clean swell. I have included it because it shows very clearly the location of the start of a permanent rip at this beach which flows parallel to the rock shelf and out from the shore in the direction of the jetty. It does not extend for a great distance. It can easily be avoided by swimming a bit further up the beach. There are of course other rips at this beach, but this one is a regular feature. If in the rip, it can be exited by swimming away from it at right angles, parallel to the beach, then into shore in the white water. When swimming to shore from the jetty (eg when training for the annual Pier to Pub swim event), it is always worth staying away from this corner to avoid a head current from the rip. It flows strongest when there is solid surf. The organisers on race day always set the finish line buoys north of this rip.

Port Campbell

The Southern Ocean at Port Campbell can be wild. There are many stories of shipwrecks in this area. The bay near the town is narrow and less than a km in length. If faces south west and receives the full force of wind and weather and swell from that direction.

This photo was taken from the clifftops overlooking Two Mile on a day with strong onshore winds and big swell. There is a permanent channel created by the underwater topography which sweeps out of the bay and around the western headland at the bay entrance to the offshore reef known as Two Mile. It is a famous big surf location. When conditions of tide, wind and swell combine to push huge amounts of water against the cliffs and into the bay, strong rips return the water out to sea via this channel. This channel is highly visible in big surf conditions. On days with less swell, the channel can still be quite visible with areas of breaking waves either side of it and no breaking waves over the channel. This is not necessarily because there is a strong rip (or indeed any rip) flowing at the time, but rather reflects the significant depth of the channel.
This photo was taken looking south from the clifftops on the eastern side of the entrance to Port Campbell. It shows the same channel flowing out to sea and turning right towards Two Mile. The green arrow traces a path over shallower water immediately east of the channel where the surf breaks from many hundreds of metres offshore. Surfers paddling out to Two Mile use the red arrow route for current assistance, and for the paddle back in I have seen many use the green arrow route to avoid the head current in the rip over the channel, and to get some assistance from breaking waves heading shorewards. A few years ago I was swimming in an ocean race at Pt Campbell on an out and back course of 1200m or so from the beach to the entrance of the bay. At the seaward turn buoy, even though conditions were nowhere near as intense as shown above, I relaxed with my back to the buoy to unfog my goggles and take in the view only to quickly discover I was being taken out to sea at a good rate by the rip in this channel. There was a rescue boat holding position seaward of me (for exactly this situation) and the crew directed me to immediately swim east towards the other headland which quickly got me out of the channel and the current and eventually back to the town beach.
Sometimes the weather and the ocean can make a familiar bay like Pt Campbell totally uninviting….
…..and sometimes the ocean there is completely at rest.

If you unexpectedly find yourself in a rip taking you somewhere you don’t want to go

Don’t panic. This is more easily said than done. Being uncomfortable about your position is OK, panicking about it is not and may well cause you to drown. If you suddenly realise you are making zero progress towards your aiming point (the shore) or that you are going out to sea when you thought you were swimming to shore, don’t just put the head down and start swimming harder. Best to tread water while you have a think about the situation and allow a few moments for any adrenaline rush from being out of your depth while going in a direction you didn’t want to be going to ease off a little.

If you are in unpleasantly turbulent water and there is quieter water in close proximity (even if it is the unbroken water beyond the surf zone) consider drifting or swimming there at an easy pace to regroup. If you are in deeper green water beyond the surf zone, the rip will have eased up or stopped. You are unlikely to come up with a quality plan if you remain in 2 metres or less of water over a sandbar where the breaking waves are big enough to throw you around and repeatedly thump you into the sand.

Come up with a logical plan. Your opportunity to swim back to shore will be either to your left or right if you are facing shore in or near the rip or just beyond the surf zone (where the rip has faded or ended). First line up a near and a far object on the shore to see whether you are drifting left or right. If you are it will most likely be tidal drift, but it could also be a rip taking you away from shore on an angle. If there is a strong drift, its direction is a consideration in whether you go left or right before heading back to shore.You must think your way out of the situation, not frantically try to power your way out of it.

Be prepared to amend your plan if execution of it is seriously not working out as hoped.

If the breaking waves are not making life too uncomfortable for you in the surf zone, look for an area of white water where waves are breaking as each set comes through and swim parallel to the shore until you have that area of breaking waves directly between you and the beach. This will usually take you out of the side of the rip. Then head to shore.

If you have swum out to the green water just beyond the surf zone, when a set of waves is breaking between you and the shore, sometimes you can see where the higher sections of the wave are (over the shallower seabed which can be your ticket to the shore), and gaps where the breaking waves are lower or not breaking at all (deeper water where a rip may be flowing out). Your route to shore will be through the shallower water, not the deeper water where the water may well be moving out to sea.

If you are in the green water beyond the surf zone looking for the best option to get to shore, provided you are not cold or exhausted, it may be worth treading water while you carefully watch a couple of sets of waves go through. You can then time your return to shore based on the sets of waves you observed. In small to moderate surf you may seek to go ashore with wave assist, or in bigger surf you may wish to wait for a lull between sets to head for shore. The timing of your swim ashore can be everything in this situation.

Pick a landmark to aim for so that you ensure you stay on track and don’t drift back into the rip. If you are drifting left or right as you swim towards shore, apply an angle of drift to help you track in a straight line. Check every few strokes by lifting your head a little and looking forward that you are staying on track. Take regular glances back over your shoulder as you swim through the surf zone to keep an eye on waves approaching you. If it is a completely broken wave of manageable size you could accelerate a bit as it reaches you, or perhaps even body surf it if you have that skill. If it is a large broken wave you might pause as it approaches, turn and face it, and duck dive or ‘pin drop’ to let it pass over you – then resume swimming towards shore.

If you have swum towards shore through a surf zone you will reach shallow water where you can walk to shore. But if the surf zone you have swum through was over a sandbar you may encounter a gutter where the waves are not breaking as much or at all. Don’t relax completely, because if conditions were enough to form a rip that carried you out a ways, the water in the gutter is probably flowing strongly too, feeding the nearest rip. You may need to point towards somewhere left or right of your target on the shore to avoid drifting parallel to the beach in the gutter. In such conditions the gutter may well be too deep to stand in.

Alternatives to swimming directly back to shore. If you are swimming in a curved bay with a nearby point (what is ‘near’ depends on your distance swimming ability), and you find yourself out in the green water just beyond the surf zone and looking for the best way back to shore, swimming parallel to shore to go ashore at the point can be considered if swimming through the surf zone looks entirely unattractive or unsafe for you. But remember that most points have a rip running out to sea alongside the rock shelf which will have to be contended with if this option is taken.

In a curved bay, I have noticed that the sand bars are often further offshore where the beach has a marked change in direction, than where the beach is straight. So an option to consider in that situation is to select a spot for your swim ashore which has less distance of white water to swim through ie on a straight section of the beach. This may involve swimming parallel to the beach for some distance to find the shortest appropriate swim to shore through the surf.

Note that in big swell, where the water is not too shallow, duck diving under a breaking wave works very well at avoiding turbulence even if it requires duck diving a couple of metres or more below the wave. But as the water gets shallower, a point is reached where duck diving under the wave does not avoid the turbulence and you will get rolled and tossed around as each wave passes over you. Don’t linger in such a zone – you need to get to either shallower water where you can safely stand or to deeper water (either by swimming towards a gutter closer to shore and then to shore, or out to sea beyond the surf zone where the waves while large are not breaking) where you are not receiving a flogging with every wave. The latter is quickly exhausting.

A Reminiscence

I have been swimming at this Victorian west coast beach for years. The swim I am about to recount happened not on a half tide on a sunny day with small surf as shown in the satellite photos below, but on a cold mind-winter’s morning a few years ago. The water’s edge was much closer to the dunes than shown in the photo, and the gutter was wider than shown in the photo.

There was a solid swell and a high tide with a strong offshore wind. It was overcast and showery and the line of the horizon across the sea was notchy indicating big swell way out to sea across the entrance to Bass Strait. The water would’ve been around 12-13°C. The air temp was less than that with wind chill in low single figures. I was wearing a good quality winter wetsuit, a neoprene armless vest under it and a lined cap. I wasn’t cold. I was swimming fit and had swum virtually daily since summer which included some long distance swimming races of distances up to 5kms.

I paused before entering the water a bit south of Milford Creek as the waves were breaking quite a way out, probably beyond the sandbar. The distance across the gutter to the sandbar was only about 50m. Being a bit daunted by the size of the breaking waves and the distance I’d have to swim to get to the green water out the back for my swim to the harbour wall, I paused and watched a couple of sets come through. They weren’t getting smaller, so I decided to take it in stages by swimming across the gutter (where I knew I’d be out of my depth) to the sandbar where I believed the water would be shallow enough to stand in. I figured that would be a good vantage point from which to assess whether to swim back to the beach (a short and easy swim) or to continue to swim through the surf zone to the deep water out the back and then down to the wall – a swim I have done many times in widely varying conditions.

I quickly reached the breaking waves over the sandbar and while at a stretch my big toe occasionally brushed the sand, I was out of my depth. That was OK and had happened before. The brief 50m or so swim to the sandbar revealed a steady current to the north. That was pretty standard in such conditions. I was having to keep ducking under breaking waves while I was over the sandbar. Some I bobbed down for, others I duck dived under. Both techniques saw me getting rolled and bounced around rather than cleanly making it under the waves. I swam out just a bit further thinking the water might be a bit deeper giving me room to dive under them with comfort before I decided whether to continue or retreat. But the waves were still breaking heavily and the water while not deep enough for comfortable duck diving, was not shallow enough for me to stand.

The view out to sea revealed waves that certainly looked bigger than they had from the shore, and they probably were. The breaking waves were a very substantial wall of advancing white water. Diving under each wave was the only option. A retreat back to shore was suddenly looking very attractive. I realised I had been swept up the beach a bit and was some distance north of where I entered the water. I headed back towards the edge of the gutter for what I still believed would be the short swim back to shore, albeit in water too deep to stand in. On entering the gutter I quickly realised I was going north and that my distance from shore was increasing. There is a break in the sandbar near where the Milford Creek runs into the sea, and (as I later discovered) the gutter I was in was feeding into the rip there.

So I only really had one option, and that was to swim away from the shore until I was beyond the breaking waves and in deeper water. I duck dived every approaching breaking wave as I swam seawards again across the sandbar. Some gave me a disorienting somersault or two and hard contact with the sand. I swam past the outer edge of the sandbar where the breaking waves usually stop, but there were large enough sets rolling in that some were breaking out to sea beyond the sandbar. I have seen this before, but not often while swimming. Once I cleared the sandbar I was in deeper water and while I couldn’t reach the sand when I duck dived, I could go deep enough to avoid the main turbulence of the breaking waves. On a few occasions I dived deep enough for my ears to pop which happens to me when I’m snorkelling at a depth of 8-10 feet or more. While I was heading away from shore, as soon as I stopped getting thrown around out of control under breaking waves I began to feel that my situation was improving a little.

I was relieved when after diving under yet another sizeable breaking wave out the back I surfaced and saw that there were no more breaking waves on my horizon. I stopped swimming and trod water. I was about 150m offshore (out from the waterline) according to my Garmin GPS watch. I realised I was breathing harder than usual and that my pulse rate was up. I didn’t feel panicked, but I knew I was closer to it than I should have been. I looked around and checked the tidal current – it was not huge and was going south. That was good – a tail current for the longer swim to the harbour wall at the southern end of the beach. I was now in a familiar situation – out the back in green water with an entirely manageable swim south to the harbour wall – the final leg of my original plan when I entered the water.

I couldn’t see the shore when I was in the trough between lines of swell. I had a great view in all directions from the crests. The seas felt big. Normally I love swimming in rising and falling green swell lines. I wasn’t quite feeling the love at this stage but I did feel that the situation was now under control. My breathing had slowed and I felt comfortable.

The swim to the beach at the southern end of the bay was uneventful. The swell size started to ease once I got south of the SLSC into the relatively protected corner of the bay. While I was a little further offshore than usual, deep water is deep water. I had a following current and the swim was entirely safe. I was enjoying the swim well before I swam past the rock wall of the harbour and into the shallows in the corner. Despite having friends swimming in the bay that morning, I didn’t see any of them. Our long habit of swimming together is really a habit of swimming at the same time at the same beach, but for all practical purposes, solo.

Postscript: I should’ve listened to the inner voice telling me I didn’t like the look of the size and extent of the surf where I went in. I allowed confidence to overrule caution. When I finally got out the back beyond the breaking waves, the shore looked a very long way away. I should’ve realised that on the high tide in that swell I wouldn’t be able to stand on the sandbar. I should’ve looked at the conditions a bit longer before going in, and I might have spotted the rip that I encountered. I shouldn’t have felt uncomfortable about the longer than usual swim through the solid surf zone. I have swum similar distances out through solid surf before at the start of a distance swim. But I think it was the fact that I decided to swim back to shore (and attempted to do so) but couldn’t get there that heightened my sense of discomfort about having no other option but to keep swimming out to sea.

I was in the water for longer than I had intended, and my warm wetsuit, vest and cap served me well. I wasn’t cold at any point. I was distance swimming fit and had confidence that subject to hypothermia I had a much greater distance in me than I would need to swim to get to shore.

I have had a handful of rip episodes over the years. Each one has taught me valuable lessons. I have heard pilots say that experience is the sum of the frights you survive.

7 thoughts on “Rips and Ocean Swimmers

    1. Thanks Gilbo, I have. But I only use them when taking photos underwater, and occasionally when body surfing. I have no plans to buy a pair of fins like yours, which from memory were longer than you!

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  1. wondefully written John, lucky for me I only go in the water when its 40 degrees in the shade and then only to sit in the shallows!

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    1. Thanks Sue. Sitting in the shallows when its 40°C in the shade sounds like an entirely reasonable use of the ocean to me! My post about rips will have been entirely superfluous for you – but I’m pleased you enjoyed reading it.

      There is a crew at Apollo Bay who walk out to chest deep water in the ocean at Marengo not long after sunrise every day of the year, without wetsuits, and stand there for about 15 minutes. These ‘plonkers’ as they like to be known emerge from the sea glowing and invigorated. Unlike you though, I don’t believe they have a threshold air temperature below which they stay out of the water.

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    1. Pleased you haven’t spotted any glaring omissions Hughbert.

      I recall you parting company with your surfboard in messy and uninviting onshore conditions at Teewah Beach Qld some years ago on that excellent hang gliding camping trip, and having a little swim which seemed to involve at least plan B and possibly plan C. It was never a problem of course for a waterman of your calibre!

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