How to spot a rip - and what to do if you're caught in one

There are about 17,000 rips at beaches around Australia on any given day. Chances are that – unless you’re a skilled surf lifesaver or an extremely experienced surfer – you’d prefer not to be dicing with them.

Yet Australians do: 4.2 million aged between 16 and 69 have been caught in a rip at least once in their lives.

So far this summer, rip currents have claimed more than 18 lives.

In December, 18 people drowned off the coast, some of them after getting stuck in rips.

Rips are not obvious to the untrained eye. Experienced surfers and swimmers will often take time and find high ground to look down on the surf zone – the area between the shore and the breaking waves furthest out – to suss out the flow of currents.

The ocean can look like a mess and some of the telltale signs of rips can be very subtle. But it’s still worth pausing and assessing the waves before you jump in.

Here’s what to look out for:

Deeper, darker coloured water

Once waves hit the shore they have to go somewhere. The huge force of the water rushing back out to sea carves channels between shallower areas of sand.

Fewer breaking waves

The rip areas where water is on its way out – via the deeper channels – won’t have as many incoming breaking waves as the areas where the white-foam-tipped waves are cresting and breaking over sand.

A rippled surface surrounded by still water

Various currents heading in different directions push against one another, creating a ripple effect.

Seaweed, sediment and churning, sandy clouds floating towards the back of the waves

This is evidence that sand from the shallows is being dragged out to the deep by currents.

What to do if you’re caught in a rip

It’s a myth that rips can drag you underwater but they can pull you out, across or around an area of water that you most definitely had not intended to explore. Even those people surveyed by Surf Life Saving Australia were circumspect about their chances of exiting a rip without help – only 12% were very confident they could.

Here’s the advice from lifesavers.

The most important thing is to stay calm and consider your options. Panic leads to fatigue, which leads to drowning.

The second thing is, even if you’re feeling freaked out, don’t swim against the rip.

Swimming against a rip is a race you can’t win. No one can.

Float. This will allow you to conserve energy. The rip may take you back to the shore. It may dissipate. The main thing is you will have energy left to respond to the situation.

While you’re floating, raise your arm and call out to seek help. (If the beach is patrolled, you’ve probably increased your chances of being spotted and you’ve got experts nearby who can help.)

If you’re a confident swimmer, try swimming parallel to the beach towards breaking waves. Breaking waves will be heading into shore. If you try this tactic and the current is too strong, go back to floating.

Lifesavers say that every rip and every situation is different, so there’s no one-size-fits-all advice.

“The No. 1 secret is not to get yourself in the position in the first place,” says Shane Daw, Surf Life Saving Australia’s national coastal risk and safety manager.

But, he adds, rips “can appear and, if you do get into one, it’s knowing there are some options that could get you out of it”.

If what you’re doing isn’t working, try another option. You might have to mix it up: floating, swimming, floating. Conserve your energy. Call for help. Stay calm.

Want to see more? Scroll through the interactive below.

Words and interactive by The Sydney Morning Herald