Eye on the Sky

Hidden Dangers

Understanding rip currents and rip tides.

By Paul Wilkerson

Travelers from across the globe descend on the Turks & Caicos Islands at a steady pace throughout the year. Nearly all are drawn by photos of the clear turquoise waters that surround the country. Our family fell into that category. Images seemed surreal, and we wanted to see for ourselves if they were accurate. What we never thought about are the hidden dangers that lie beneath the waters—dangers present along nearly every coastline around the world, whether ocean or large lakes, such as the Great Lakes of the United States. What are these dangers? Rip currents and rip tides.

Rip currents are off-shore flows that occur most often where breaking waves push water up the beach face. This water must naturally escape back out to sea. There are areas where this water will more easily flow back and this is where we are most likely to see rip currents form. Breaks in sand bars, deeper channels of any sort, any locations where deeper water is bordered by shallow waters, have the ability to harbor rip currents.

In general, rip currents are not immense, usually averaging 20 to 50 feet wide, although they can occasionally be as much as 200 feet. Where rip currents set up, the flow of water within the current usually averages 1 to 2 feet per second, yet can flow at up to 8 feet per second. At the upper end of this speed, it would be futile to try to swim against the current.

So how do you spot a rip current, and if caught in one, survive? Spotting a rip current can be challenging, and on average 70% of people can’t identify them. Here’s how to up the odds. When you head to the beach, look at the wave patterns as they come into shallow waters. Look for breaks in waves where the water appears a bit calmer. Watch the way the water flows in these areas. It might be flowing out towards the ocean, and this is likely a rip current.

Look for water offshore that appears to be discolored. This water usually has turbulently mixed with sand, possibly an indication of a rip current. Look for ripples on the surface of the water (within an active wave zone). Are these ripples moving toward the open ocean? You may have found a rip current.

When you venture into the water to snorkel or just relax, take a look under the water and make note of any channels or breaks in sandbars. If you locate these, pay attention to the currents in and around them. Always exercise caution and be aware of what is going on around you before you venture into the water.

If you do find yourself caught in a rip current, it is important to not panic. You need to have all your faculties available to save your life. If you feel yourself being carried away, swim parallel to and at a slight angle toward the shore. It may take a bit of time to realize you are making progress, but you will eventually escape the current and be able to make your way back. It is important to not swim directly against the current, as you will make very little progress and will tire quickly. Sadly, on average 100 people succumb to rip currents in the United States every year. In most of these cases, the individuals could have survived by taking appropriate measures to escape the current.

Pelican Cay appears to be “just offshore” Bambarra Beach in Middle Caicos, but the distance and potential presence of rip currents can be deceiving and dangerous.

Unfortunately, three lives were lost off Middle Caicos in August 2019 due to another phenomenon that remains a hidden danger—riptides. It is important to note that riptides are not the same as rip currents. Riptides develop naturally in harbors and other protected areas of water that are bordered by landmasses, jetties or inlets. Riptides occur as part of the natural tidal cycle daily.

What many people may not know is that there are a couple of days each month when tidal forces are at their maximum, and several days when they are at their minimum. Right around the New Moon and Full Moon, tidal forces are maximized and the highest variation from high to low tide is likely to occur. These are called the Spring Tides. At the 1st and 3rd quarter of the moon, the tidal forces are at their minimum, called Neap Tides.

What is most important to understand is that once high tide has occurred, water begins gradually flowing back out to sea as low tide approaches. This creates a natural pull/current out to sea. This is where a blocking land body or an inlet/jetty comes into play.

Let’s take a look at Bambarra Beach and Pelican Cay where this tragedy occurred. As the water is being pulled away from shore, the placement of Pelican Cay effectively creates channels of strong current on either side of it as water is sucked away from the beach. These currents can become extremely powerful in the waters between the offshore cay and the beach. These forces and currents can last quite a way beyond the landmass around which they are created. What is generally knee-deep to waist-deep water can quickly become dangerous as the forces of the current overwhelm unsuspecting people, pulling them into deeper water and away from shore. It happens quickly and suddenly, occasionally leading to tragedy.

It is important to remember, as in the case of rip currents, if you have been pulled into open waters due to a riptide, swim parallel to shore and at an angle toward shore. As you swim away from the riptide source, the effects will weaken and you should be able to safely land.

Charged with this new knowledge, prior to your next visit take a moment to look up the tidal cycle for the days you are vacationing in the Turks & Caicos. Review areas where riptides or rip currents may be more common. A few minutes of preparation can ensure the safety of you and your family!

Paul Wilkerson is an American meteorologist and tourist who frequents the Turks & Caicos Islands. Along with his wife and two daughters, the Wilkersons stay actively engaged with Islanders throughout the year with his Facebook page Turks and Caicos Islands Weather Info.

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