Rip currents can be dangerous at North Carolina's Outer Banks. Here's how to get out of them safely. (Shutterstock) How to Survive a Rip Current
Rip currents can be dangerous at North Carolina's Outer Banks. Here's how to get out of them safely. (Shutterstock)

This is as good an opportunity as ever to talk about how to escape rip currents, the biggest danger beachgoers face in North Carolina.

A man vacationing on Oak Island Beach this week saw two young children struggling in the ocean. They were far away from shore. 

So he swam out to rescue them.

Well done, sir. 

But this tale of heroism is a good chance to remind people about the dangers of rip currents off our state’s lovely but volatile coast.

While it’s unclear if these kids got caught in a rip current, the issue is a big problem in North Carolina. 

In 2019, there were at least 13 fatalities directly tied to rip currents or suspected to be, and that does not include instances, like this week’s, where the swimmers were rescued or got themselves out of trouble. Rip currents also cause more than 100 drownings a year in the US and more than 80% of water rescues at the beach, according to UNC-Wilmington’s Department of Environmental Health and Safety.

These currents are the leading danger to beachgoers. And while rip currents are especially dangerous to new or weak swimmers, they can move swiftly, proving too much for even a strong swimmer to fight against.

Here’s the guidance for how to stay safe if you are caught in a rip current.

What is a rip current?

They are like underground rivers moving away from the shore. The give and take of the tide can cut channels into the sand under the water, and when that happens unseen currents form inside them. 

In many cases these currents are relatively weak, but when the conditions are right, like just before or after a strong storm, they can be powerful enough to take a full grown person out to sea.

It is impossible to swim against a strong rip current, but the good news is that these currents are normally narrow, and can be escaped.

How Do You Escape?

The most important thing, experts say, is stay calm.

The currents will not pull you under, so breathe and get your bearings. Then as soon as you are able start swimming laterally.

  • Do not swim against the current. Swim parallel to the shore. You should feel it when you are free of the current, and then you can swim safely to the beach.
  • If you can’t free yourself from the rip, try to float or tread water. 
  • Call or wave for help.