Rip currents

stay safe this summer

Research and Consultancy

A large proportion of my work is focussed on the measurement of rip currents, and rip current education. One current aspect includes providing consultancy to Surf Life Saving New Zealand, and has helped shape the recent ‘Relax, Raise, Ride’ campaign, sponsored by TSB.

Rip current statistics


LIFEguard rescues attributed to rips


NZ deaths per year


NZ rescues per year


metres per second max speed

How do rip currents form?

Rip currents are strong narrow jets of water returning offshore. This water is first brought in through the process of wave breaking, typically over submerged sandbars, and it then flows back out through deeper channels that cut between the sandbars.

"You can spot a channel rip current by looking for a gap in the breaking waves - that's where the water is flowing back offshore - like in this picture."

Rips are dynamic and changeable - offshore flows can be established in minutes.

Take a look at this video, showing some of our field data from Muriwai. The rip quickly switches from a relatively safe nearshore eddy, into strong, hazardous offshore flows that go about 300 m offshore of the beach.

What to do if you're caught in one?

Step 1


One of the biggest risks when caught in a rip current is the initial response – to panic. 

It’s really important to try and overcome this response. Lots of people think the rip current will pull you under the water, but it won’t. All you need to do is relax, conserve your energy, and try to float on your back. 

Importantly, do not try to swim against the current. You won’t win, and this is how people use up all their energy and ultimately drown. 

Step 2


Next, raise your hand. This signals to lifeguards (or any other people on the beach or in the water) that you need assistance. 

If you’re one a surfboard or a bodyboard, you can also pick this up out the water and wave it side to side to attract attention.


Step 3


Finally, continue to ride the rip. Remember, it won’t pull you under the water, just move you offshore. It will only go out as far as the breaking waves (the surfzone), and so when the current weakens you can use the breaking waves to get back into shore.