Safety Spotlight - Tides and rips. Stay out of their grips!

The pull of the sea…the pull of the tides. Around our coasts, tides and currents are a natural part of the everyday rhythm of life….and sometimes death if you’re unwary or just plain unlucky.

People get caught out by tides and currents on a daily basis and already this year we’ve sent help to hundreds of callers who have been in difficulty. Including people in cars surrounded by sea water, children screaming in terror as they were swept out to sea on inflatables, experienced and not so experienced swimmers struggling in unexpected currents, people shivering on slippery rocks and trapped in caves as the water rises around them.

Credit Dr Rob Brander. He used a harmless purple dye to illustrate a rip current in Australia

Understand nature's ebb and flow

Tides and currents can put people in danger, but by understanding nature’s ebb and flow, it’s easier to stay safe while you’re enjoying that fresh sea air. You can be sitting on a beach with the water at your feet and just a few hours later, you’ll need to take a walk across the sand if you fancy a paddle. But much worse is that you could be on a headland with your family, engrossed in rockpooling and then you look up to find water is swirling around you, with no easy route to safety.

Don’t let it happen to you

Last week, the unexpected happened to one family on the coast at Lynmouth, Devon. They were cut off by the rising tide and it took one of our search and rescue helicopters to winch them to safety as well as the Lynmouth Coastguard Rescue Team and RNLI lifeboat being called out to help.

Credit Lynmouth Coastguard Rescue Team


Tides – what and why?

The orbit of the earth and the gravitational forces of the sun and the moon affect our tides. And without getting into too much detail, the simplest way is to remember that it a full tide (from high to high) takes around 12 hours and six hours to change from high to low tide and vice versa. Tidal times are constantly on the move, so a low tide at say 11am on a Saturday will be at a different time in the following days and weeks.

But there are lots of free and easy ways to ensure you know what the tide is going to do. It’s very important if you’re planning a visit to the coast and/or going out in or on the water.

Be tide-wise

  • Get a free app for your phone. For example; ‘My Tide Times’, MSW - Magic Seaweed
  • Check out the information at lifeguard stations and beach offices
  • Check the Met Office page on tide times 
  • Understand tides, see this summary from our colleagues at RNLI
  • Timetable key; H.W = High Water (High Tide) L.W = Low W (Low Tide) M = Meters (approx height of the expected tide)

Rips and risks –how to break the grip of a rip

Rip currents are powerful flows of water that can be hard to spot. They can sweep even the most experienced and strongest of people off their feet and out to deeper water in moments.  
They tend to flow at 1–2mph but can reach 4–5mph, which is faster than an Olympic swimmer.

Rips are especially powerful in larger surf, but never underestimate the power of any water. They are also found around river mouths, estuaries and man-made structures like piers and groynes.

A rip current with arrows indicating water flow

How to spot a rip current?

The water can often look deceptively calm, with no wave activity in it. It may also be a different colour or rippled but it differs from the general pattern of the waves and can be spotted from the shore. If you can, always choose a lifeguarded beach and swim between the yellow and red flags.

In a rip? What to do

  • Don’t try to swim against it or you’ll get exhausted.
  • If you can stand, wade don’t swim.
  • If you can, swim parallel to the shore until free of the rip and then head for shore.
  • Always raise your hand and shout for help.

If you see anyone in difficulties, call 999 and ask for the Coastguard. Day and night, we’re there to help anyone in trouble around our coasts. 

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