13 Feb 2024 • 2 min read • Category

Understanding Rip Currents

rip current -fanore beach ireland

People always ask me “are there Rip Currents at Fanore Beach”. Well put simply any beach that has waves will have some sort of rip currents. If there are no waves, then generally there’s no rip currents. The bigger the waves, the stronger the currents. It is mostly a lack of knowledge of rip currents that makes them dangerous. For us as surfers and lifeguards, we use rip currents to our advantage, as these will often be the quickest route out to where the waves are breaking. 

Now before we look at what they are, let’s have a look at what they’re not. They’re not called Rip Tides. This term is confusing as it implies that they are caused by the tides, which they’re not. Another misnomer about Rip Currents is that they pull you underneath the water. This also is not true. Rip currents do not pull you under the water. 

So what are they? Rip currents, more often simply referred to as “rips,” are powerful, narrow channels of water that flow from the shore out to sea. So how does this happen? Well all those waves bring in lots of water and this water all pushes up on the beach, but it’s got to go somewhere. So the water flows along the beach and looks for a way back out to sea. It generally does this through a deeper channel of water, or along a headland, pier, along rocks or some other structure. So the water gets pushed in by the waves, flows along the beach, and then back out to sea in a rip current. Rip currents are generally not that wide, instead they are often powerful, narrow channels of water, like a river flowing from the shore out to sea. Some of these currents can move at speeds of up to eight feet per second, faster than even the strongest swimmer can swim.

Generally these currents only go out as far as where the waves are starting to break, and then their energy dissipates. So they’re not going to take you out into the middle of the ocean.

At some beaches the currents may be always in the same location. At others they move depending on the tide and the layout of the sand on the beach on the day. We have big tides in Ireland, so as the tide moves in and out along the beach, the location of the currents may change also, This is because the topography of the sand bottom may be different on different parts of the beach. Thereby affecting the water flow and the currents.

family in the beach - current shown
current map - aloha surf school
long sandy beach - surf in ireland
waves with wind in ireland - aloha surf school
rip current -fanore beach ireland
rip current map

Recognising Rip Currents


To the untrained eye, spotting rip currents can be tricky enough. You just need to know what to look for and spend time observing the ocean. As I mentioned they are often in deeper channels of water. Now we know that waves break when they reach shallow water. As these currents are in deeper channels, generally waves won’t break where the rip current is as it’s in the deeper water. So one of the easiest ways to spot them is to look for a gap where no real waves are breaking. This is one of the best tell-tale signs.

The water here can also have a rippled, textured look, as the water flow of the current is going out to sea against the flow of the waves so it gets this rippled effect. You may also notice, foam, seaweed or debris flowing out to sea in the current. The water is often a darker colour also, as it doesn’t have the whitewater of the breaking waves. Darker water is also deeper water and this is the channel the rip is moving out to sea in. Inexperienced water users arriving at a beach often think that the these seemingly calm areas of greener water are the safest place to swim. When in fact the safest place to swim is generally the spot where the waves are breaking because this means that it is shallower here and you have the whitewater and the waves pushing you towards the shore. 


Staying safe around rip currents


1 – The best way to stay safe around rip currents is to try and avoid them. When at a lifeguarded beach always swim between the red and yellow flags.

2 – Always seek out the advice of regular beach goers, surfers or lifeguards.

3 – If there are no lifeguards on duty, look out for the tell-tale signs of where the currents might be and generally the safest place to swim will be in the spot with the most waves. Just be aware that you will get moved around out there, so always have a fixed marker on the land that you can use to line up with, so you can stay orientated and know if you are getting moved away from the waves and towards the current.

4 – Rip currents become more of a hazard as soon as you stray away from waist depth water. Within waist depth water you have a good strong foothold to walk out of a rip. As soon as you get into deeper water, your lungs will float you and make getting a foothold in the sand more difficult. 

5 – If you do get caught in a rip, stay calm. Remember they don’t drag you under and they don’t take you out into the middle of the ocean. Panicking will only deplete your energy. Panicking is the main reason that people drown because of rip currents.

6 – Don’t fight the current. Swimming against a rip will tire you out and then lead to panic. Instead of swimming directly against the current, swim parallel to the shore, towards the breaking waves. 

7 – If you’re unable to escape the rip or not a strong swimmer, just float on your back and signal for assistance by waving one arm to and fro over your head. Remember it won’t take you all the way out to sea, just out to where the waves are starting to break, and then you can try swim back in with the breaking waves. If you can stay calm and chill, you’ll find that a rip will often just re-circulate you back around to shallower water.

So once you understand rips, they’re not something that you should really fear. The more experienced you become, the more you will use rips to get out and about in the surf. The ocean is a powerful force, but with knowledge and respect, you can surf safely and confidently. However as the old saying goes, if in doubt don’t go out! Or better still, join one of our surf lessons where you’ll learn all this and more under the guidance of our experienced instructors.

Next surf instructor teaching at ireland Why you can never do too many Kids and Teens Surf Camps!! 13 Feb 2024 • 2 min read • Category Read

We use cookies for the best experience on our website, for social media features and to analyse traffic. By clicking accept you agree to our use of cookies. Read Cookies Policy.