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Surf Warnings and Precautions

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What is a “rip current”? A rip current is a narrow, powerful current of water running roughly perpendicular to the beach, but eventually at an angle away from the beach and out into the ocean. These currents may extend 200 to 2,500 feet lengthwise, but are typically less than 30 feet wide. Rip currents can move fast, sometimes 5 miles per hour or faster, like mini-rapids.

Rip currents are caused by the shape of the shoreline and often occur suddenly. They can be fun or scary because they can surprise you. One minute you’re floating or splashing happily in the surf and the next, you’re being tugged out to sea. Rip currents occur in all sorts of weather and on many of Hawaii’s beaches. Unlike violent, crashing waves, you probably won’t notice a rip current until you’re being pulled by the sea.

A rip current occurs when the receding flow of the ocean becomes concentrated in a particular area. The most common cause is a break in a sandbar where the water rushes through at a low point. Rip currents can last for several minutes or hours. Before you go in the ocean, you can toss a stick into the sea and see how the stick behaves in the water to gauge possible currents. Just don’t go into the water over your head and you’ll be able to walk back out of the ocean to the beach, even if you feel some cross currents pulling at you.

Is a “rip tide” the same thing? No. There really is no such thing as a “rip tide.” Tides are the rising and falling of water levels in the ocean, caused mostly by the moon’s gravitational pull. Tides change gradually and predictably every day.

Is “undertow” the same as a rip current? Rip currents are also not undertow. Undertow is a current of water that pulls you down to the ocean’s bottom. Rip currents move along the surface of the water, pulling you straight out into the ocean, but not underneath the water’s surface. If you are in shallow water, a rip current could knock you down, and if you thrash around and get disoriented, you may end up being pulled along the ocean bottom. The key is to relax your body and let the current keep you near the surface.

What do you do if you find yourself in a rip current? If you get caught up in a rip current — don’t panic. Your first instinct may be to swim against the current back to shallow waters — the shortest distance. Even a strong swimmer cannot beat the ocean and will become exhausted. The current is too strong to fight head-on.

Instead, swim sideways, parallel to the beach. This movement will get you out of the narrow outward current, so you can swim back to shore with the waves helping you. If it’s too hard to swim sideways while you’re being dragged through the water, just wait until the current carries you past the sandbar. The water will become calmer and you can then swim clear of the rip current before heading back in.

Tsunami’s: For information about Hawaii tsunami’s, see Hawaii Weather.

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