Brits show a staggering lack of understanding when it comes to rip currents – do you know better?

Beaches form one of the British holidaymaker’s favourite destinations. Kids often ask to spend their days paddling, building sandcastles, and eating ice cream. They are also an extremely dangerous place if you don’t know (or don’t understand) the hazards.

The RNLI is the UK body responsible for the provision of lifeguarding services on beaches, and upwards of two thirds of their workload can be put down to rescues caused by hazardous rip currents. Our recent study found that a lot of these rescues could be as a result of misinformation in the public domain.

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Perranporth beach in May 2014. Multiple rips visible alongshore. Could you spot them?
One of the biggest myths, perpetuated by the media, is that rip currents will ‘suck you under the water’. They won’t. Rips move horizontally offshore. But what is the effect of thinking they suck you under? Most likely, immediate panic when you’re caught in one, thinking you’re going to be taken under the water at any time. It’s this panic response that becomes dangerous when in a rip current, because panic results in irrational thought, and expulsion of vast amounts of energy as people try desperately to swim back to shore. If you were armed with the knowledge that the worst the current is going to do is just move you offshore, as long as you were comfortable treading water or floating, there’s really no need to panic. And by just simply floating, and raising your hand to attract attention, you have a much increased chance of rescue, than compared to expelling all your energy to the point of exhaustion by fighting the current. In a survey in the study, a staggering 44% of people thought a rip would suck you under.

In that same study, 35% of people were unable to identify the flags used by the RNLI to designate a safe area to swim, and when asked to spot the safest area to swim in a photo showing a rip current,  40% of respondents incorrectly said that the apparent calm area (the rip current) was the safer area to swim.

If you’re heading to the beach this summer, or taking your children there, it’s so so important to ensure that you know what you’re looking for when identifying a safe area to swim, or for your kids to play. Always try and look for a lifeguarded beach, and take some time to educate yourself on the risks of rip currents and what to do if you’re caught in one.

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Synopsis of our recent study on rip current myths and public perception.

Dr Sebastian Pitman is a researcher in coastal morphodynamics at the University of Southampton. Take a look at some of his research here.

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