NSW Sea Kayak Club – A Reminder About Rips [74]

By Michael Steinfeld

In February a number of members paddled from Yarra Bay to Boat Harbour as part of a practice day for potential Sea Leaders. The wind was slight but the sea was sloppy with a two metre swell. Rebound caused a washing machine effect around the headlands and reef near Boat Harbour.

After landing at Boat Harbour we continued on to Bate Bay where we had to negotiate the reefs about half a kilometre out to sea to get to the beach. We donned our helmets and made it to the beach safely whereupon we commenced kayak surfing. I saw a large wave set coming and paddled backwards to avoid it. However, the wave crashed on the kayak — I was pummelled and came out of my boat. While swimming towards the beach I knew I was being pulled out to sea by a rip. My kayak landed safely on the beach.

This is the second time I have been caught in a rip. On the previous occasion at Seal Rocks, I swam against it and made it to the beach exhausted. Why I write this article is that I forgot how to get out of a rip and I was deluded into believing that as the shoreline appeared very close I could simply swim my way out of it towards the beach.

Kayakers are more likely to be exposed to rips because we often have to surf well away from other beachgoers or at unsupervised beaches and the likelihood of a capsize in the surf zone is high. If your rolling skills are not 100 per cent, you will wet exit.

A rip is a channel of water moving back out to sea from the beach. The waves take the water to the beach; the rip pools that water and takes it back out. The channel of the rip is deeper than the surrounding water. Usually the water in the rip moves so fast that you have little hope of swimming against it. The more you do the more exhausted you get. Panic can set in and you can easily drown.

You can identify the rip if you stand on a high vantage point overlooking the beach. Usually a rip exists between the areas of white water. The water will appear calmer as waves don’t break in deeper water, different in colour as it is deeper or you can see sand and debris floating out to sea.

Rips are stronger at low tide and in large swells — the more water going to the beach, the more water going out. Rips are likely to occur near jetties and piers or near headlands and rocks. In periods of large swells and wind, rips are said to ‘behave badly’ and the beach is not the place where kayaks should attempt to land.

After I struggled in the water, another kayaker swam out to assist. As you would expect, he was caught in the same predicament. I knew that with PFDs, we had plenty of staying power floating on the water. A swimmer who had been watching from the beach came into the water to assist. He held out his arm and I tried to grab it. He later mentioned that when the wave came, my PFD made me float away from him in the strong rip. Our guide, realizing that two of us were in the water too long, paddled to us. He was dealing with a rescue in the surf zone, which was very difficult. I grabbed his back toggle and I was taken closer to the shore before it came out of my hand. Another paddler from our group swam to us. He instructed me to lie on my back and was able to grab my PFD and pull me sideways out of the rip. My rescuer, who was also caught in the rip, followed behind.

You need to know what to do when caught in a rip and secondly, how to rescue somebody caught in a rip. I came across these main points when I researched the internet.

  • Stay calm, tread water and allow the rip current to carry you out. Then wait for help or swim around the rip current and back to shore.
  • Alternatively start to swim parallel to the shore or towards areas of white water or white breaking waves. Rips aren’t exactly narrow, but they are concentrated in one place.
  • Sometimes the rip is diagonal to shore; if you are not making progress swim in the other direction.
  • If someone is caught in a rip and you are in your kayak, you should only effect the rescue if you are confident of your paddling skills with that type of rescue. If you are likely to capsize in the process there is no point to the exercise and it means double trouble.
  • Throwing a towrope to the swimmer may not help as the hook may injure and the rope may become dangerous. Alternatively, you could shout directions to stay calm and guide them sideways. Better still, you could also tell the paddler to go with the rip flow until the rip stops and then assist the paddler to swim to the beach to collect their kayak.
  • If you are on the beach, it is best not to wade into the water unless you are a very confident swimmer and understand the nature of the specific rip and how to get out of danger. Otherwise, like my rescuer, there are two in trouble.

So next time you are on the beach, do yourself a favour and identify the rips. By the way, the rip can become your friend if you use it to kayak out to sea past the breakers but again it is a two-edged sword as if you fall out you will find yourself in the rip.

One of the best sites for more information is Science of the Surf (SOS), http://www.scienceofthesurf.com.

Thanks to Rob Mercer for his suggestions.