What to do if your child is caught in a riptide

Simple steps to teach your children to stay safe while swimming and paddling in the sea

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Riptides have received a lot of coverage in the news recently, So how can you reduce the risk of you or your child being caught up in one?

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What is a riptide?

The best way to think about a riptide is as a fast-flowing river inside the sea. A riptide isn’t actually a tide, but it is a powerful stream of water that will pull anything in its path away from the shore and into the sea. 

How will you know you’re in one?

You’ll find yourself being pulled away from the shore and out to sea. You won’t be pulled under but you might be knocked off your feet. 

So what should you do if your child is caught in a riptide

  1. Don’t panic 
    The most important thing is for your child not to panic. Easier said than done of course. If you’re together with your child, it’s vital you stay calm yourself and keep your child as calm as possible.
  2. If in shallow water, try to grip onto the sea floor 
    If your child is in relatively shallow water, the best thing is for them to grip on to the sea floor with their feet, while waiting for help. If they can, they should wade to the left or right. They shouldn’t swim if they can firmly stand on the sea floor. 
  3. Call or signal for help
    Call out or wave to attract attention, but don’t thrash or do it with too much energy – you don’t want to exhaust yourself. Before your child goes in the sea, remind them to signal if they feel themselves being pulled out to sea. 
  4. DON’T try to swim against the riptide back to shore
    If your child is pulled away from the shore, it’s vital that they don’t try to swim back to shore against the riptide. This is the most dangerous mistake that many swimmers make as even the strongest swimmers can’t swim against a riptide. Your child (and you, if you’re with them) will need to conserve as much energy as possible.
  5. DO swim parallel to the beach
    So instead of trying to swim back in, the solution is to swim parallel to the shore. The strong riptide is actually quite narrow and by swimming parallel, your child will gradually escape the current of the rip. If you’re feeling exhausted, just keep afloat or try to tread water. The riptide stream will weaken, and you’ll be able to start swimming either left or right of it. 
  6. Let the waves bring you back to the shore
    Once you and your child are no longer in the grip of the rip stream, use the waves as much as you can to wash you back to the shore.

How to avoid riptides

The first most important thing is to listen to the experts. Head to a beach where there are lifeguards – you can find out which ones have lifeguards by using the Good Beach Guide search page

Always follow the flag advice – only swim or even paddle between red-and-yellow flags. A flag that’s only red means no swimming, paddling or going in the sea. A calm sea doesn’t mean a safe sea. Lifeguards are looking out for strong currents and riptides as well as rough seas. 

Riptides sometimes appear as ‘calm breaks’ in the waves – a flat calm area where the waves don’t break (see pic below). They may also look a slightly different colour – but you’re only likely to see that from a high vantage point. 

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The key is to follow the lifeguards’ instructions and to use common sense. Go into the water with your children and if you find an area where you feel a strong pull into the sea, make sure you come out and find a safer place to swim or paddle. 

How worried should we be?

It’s worth stressing to your child that a riptide doesn’t need to be dangerous if you know what to look for and what to do. You may just be pulled away from the shore for a little while. The key is to stay afloat, allowing help to come.

Remind your child that swimming in the sea is different to swimming in a pool – and always watch them carefully. 

Watch the Lifeguard video to watch how to cope with a riptide…

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