With the Atlantic Hurricane Season still in full swing, and the potential for severe conditions up and down the eastern seaboard of the United States, I felt this would be as good a time as any to discuss currents and rip currents.
CURRENT- A flow of water in a definite or specific direction.
There are a few types of currents to be aware of when you are out in the water.
Swell currents generally push from the the direction of the weather system generating the incoming swell. For example, if a south swell is filling in at your local surf break, the predominant current will be pushing from the south and pulling to the north. The strenth of these currents depends on the size and strength of the swell being generated. You are going to want to pay attention to these currents out in the water so that you do not drift out of position...either too deep (too far behind the peak of a wave) or too far down the line (to far ahead of the peak of a wave).
Tidal currents are also something to pay close attention to. Depending on how severe your local spot's tidal swing is, the amount of water moving in and out can vary greatly. Also, keep in mind that the moon can effect tidal levels as well with a full moon causing water levels to run deeper than usual. With an incoming tide, tidal currents (known as a tidal surge) can push you into the impact zone (inside of the breaking waves). In bigger surf conditions, this can be extremely dangerous as you may very well find yourself exerting a lot of energy trying to paddle through strong apposing currents and duckdiving powerful waves in shallow conditions. On the reverse end of that, an outgoing tide can pull you out past the breaking waves and put you in a position where you will have to paddle back in.
One of the best ways to make sure you stay in the right spot out in the water is to "line up" your position. Locate three fixed, stationary objects on land (a lightpole, house, mountain, etc.) and use those objects to triangulate where you want to be in the water. Periodically check those objects. If you've drifted out of position because of the swell currents or tidal currents, you'll know it and will be able to paddle back into the right spot.
Now that we've discussed swell and tidal currents, we're ready to move onto to the type of current that is responsible for nearly 80% of all lifeguard rescues around the world...
RIP CURRENT- (also referred to as a "Riptide" or "Rip") A strong current of turbulent water in the ocean, flowing outwards from the shore, caused by the meeting of currents or abrupt changes in depth and creating a disturbance on the surface.
Rips form when waves push water towards the shore. This water, in an effort to flow back out, will have the tendency to move sideways along the shoreline until it finds an open area to push back out through such as a trench between sandbars, underneath piers, or alongside jetties.
Watch this short video clip to learn more about rips, and what to do if you get caught in one...
IMPORTANT NOTE: Just because the waves are small, or because there is no threat of a powerful storm, does not mean that currents in the water aren't present or that rips won't form. I've, personally, seen inexperienced tourists get swept away in rips on 1-2ft days. Always pay close attention to the conditions out in the water, and always be aware of your surroundings! If you're riding a break for the first time, it might be a good idea to check in with the lifeguards on duty. A little local knowledge can go a long way. Lastly, ALWAYS RESPECT THE POWER OF THE OCEAN and as the old saying goes, "If in doubt, don't go out!"
For more information about rips and currents, visit these web links:
With all of that said, have fun and be safe. I'll see you in the water...YEEEWWW!!!