Respect the Kraken
When I was a little waterman and you could still buy penny sweets, I would hear tales of this monster that lurked in the surf zone waiting to grab the unsuspecting swimmer! The monster turned out not to be the kraken I had envisaged but a very natural flow of water called a RIP. RIPs are responsible for the majority of RNLI lifeguard incidents on our Island Nation and worldwide are a major cause of drowning.
I have a love/hate relationship with the Kraken. As a waterman, I love this flow of water that enables an easy ride ‘outback’, saving energy and enabling a swift path through the crashing white water. On the other side is hate: to the unsuspecting and non-water folk, a RIP is your worst nightmare - a true Kraken of the sea.
So what is a RIP? Wave action brings water onto the beach with every wave and the RIP is the natural flow of this water back out again. This concentrated flow of water travels faster than an Olympic swimmer but only goes out as far as the breaking waves. Even a big one is no wider than your local 25m swimming pool. It will not pull you under the water and its path out to sea will be one of less waves as the outward flow reduces the size of the incoming waves. If only a RIP stayed this simple – and on lots of beaches it can indeed be this simple to understand and identify. Unfortunately, just like the incoming waves, the outgoing RIP is totally unique. In all my years in the surf zone, I’ve never encountered two RIPs the same. Its unique attributes add a degree of mystery...a deceitful edge that led to the ‘Kraken’ name I’ve used since I was a child.
When I train Lifeguards, I teach them to understand the flow of water on a beach. If you can understand this flow at high and low tide - with the effects of waves and the shape of the beach - you can predict the presence of a RIP even if it is not obvious to see. This level of understanding takes experience; years of experience. This is why lifeguards put out the ‘red and yellow’ flags because we know the best place to have the safest experience swimming at the beach. When the waves reach 0.5 of a metre there will be a RIP. The bigger the waves, the stronger the RIP. This means that when the East winds blow and we have waves in Torbay there is a RIP on every beach. Goodrington will have a RIP at both ends of the beach and a third on the rocks in the centre. Depending on size of wave action and tide height it also has diagonal RIPs that feed the main Kraken in the centre of the beach.
Putting the imagery of a kraken aside, RIPs are not the cause of drowning. Panic is the killer, responsible for frantic swimming against the flow, tiredness and inevitable swallowing of water. If you don’t know what to do in a RIP you will panic and it’s the panic that will cause drowning.
So let’s keep it as simple as possible and understand what we can do to stay safe from a RIP.
Firstly, when you get to a beach, STOP & LOOK & LISTEN:
STOP & LOOK - spend a moment to look at the beach, identify dangers and RIPS. RIPS are often a flow of water that looks calmer than the surrounding water, sometimes darker as it carries the sediment from the shore out to sea.
LISTEN - speak to locals, lifeguards, other beach users. Ask if they know of any dangers on the beach and check the signage. Remember that parents without any RIP knowledge often force their children to swim in the RIP because they think it’s an area of calmer water!
If you find yourself in a RIP, don’t panic. Remember the number one rule - never swim against the RIP, it’s too strong a flow of water. You have two options: either go with the flow - most RIPs work in a circular motion and will actually bring you back into shore once it’s taken you out - or swim parallel to the shore and exit the RIP to the side. If in doubt of the situation or your ability, float on your back or with your board and call for help.
The RIP is to be understood and respected. For further information on RIPs check out the advice and videos at www.abovewater.org