Roger Cox: New book gets it right on rip currents

If you've ever doubted how much chaos rip currents cause along the British coast each year, try doing a Google video search for 'RNLI and rip currents'. Then take your pick from 'Family of five rescued from rip current by RNLI lifeguards in Devon'; 'Boy heard screaming for help rescued from rip current by lifeguard'; 'RNLI lifeguards rescue 24 people from rip currents in Croyde Bay'; and 'Six people caught in a rip current at Widemouth beach rescued by lifeguard'. And that's just a small sample from the first page of the search results. Thanks to the fact that lifeguards now seem to have GoPro cameras fixed to the decks of their rescue boards as standard, the internet must have almost as many films of exhausted, bedraggled-looking people being hauled from the water and paddled back to safety as it does funny clips of cats falling off kitchen surfaces.

William Thomson

Clearly, then, the RNLI is doing an incredible job of keeping people safe out in the water, and evidently a hefty proportion of its workload now involves rescuing people who find themselves trapped in these frightening liquid conveyor belts and dragged out to sea. There have been concerted efforts to try and educate the public – not just by posting cautionary GoPro films online, but also the RNLI’s high-profile Respect the Water campaign, which this year involved TV and radio ads and a series of talks and presentations at schools and community centres all around the country. But I wonder if the people who really need educating are the ones who should know all there is to know about rips already – surfers – and I say this because, as somebody who’d thought for years he knew it all, I recently realised I don’t know the half of it.

On the whole, I tend to think of rips as more of a help than a hindrance. At most surf spots, when the waves start getting a little bigger (as tends to be the case at this time of year) they can make paddling out through the breaking surf a whole lot easier, to the extent that you start actively looking for the tell-tale signs: areas of darker water where waves are backing off instead of breaking, perhaps with a choppy-looking surface as if a river is running under the sea (which, of course, is more-or-less what’s happening). Figure out where the rips are and time things just right, and you can sometimes find yourself sitting outside the breaking surf in a matter of a couple of minutes with dry hair and a smug grin, having been able to paddle out without needing to duck-dive under a single wall of whitewater.

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True, there have been times when I’ve found myself being pulled out to sea further and faster than I’d like – on big days at Balevullin on Tiree, for example, there’s a hefty rip that can whisk you towards the point at the east end of the beach at alarming speed – but I’ve always been able to get back to the fun zone by sticking to the old “paddle parallel to the beach” rule. Rips, even strong ones, aren’t usually very wide, so if you paddle across them you’ll eventually reach calmer water; try paddling straight for the beach, however, and you won’t go anywhere at all.

There’s much more to understanding rips than that, though – as I learned when I picked up a copy of author and artist William Thomson’s very informative and also very beautifully illustrated new publication, The Book of Tides. Thomson covers everything from the way tides shift water around our coasts to the formation of things like whirlpools and tidal bores, but the must-read chapter is the one on rips. As well as covering some of the things I’ve mentioned above, Thomson also has some essential information on the differences between sandbar rips, which form by water rushing back out to sea in the depressions between sandbars, and topographical rips, which form beside features like groynes, headlands or other structures heading out to sea.

To my shame, I’d never even heard of this latter category of rip, but apparently studies have shown that the aforementioned structures can generate powerful rips up to twice their length, potentially depositing you way out in the middle of the ocean if you don’t keep your wits about you. Given that my new favourite place to go surfing is a prime candidate for this kind of current to develop, I’ll treat it with a lot more respect from now on – particularly as the first serious swells of autumn are just beginning to light up the east coast. n

*The Book of Tides, by William Thomson is published by Quercus, £20. For more on William Thomson see