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What is a Rip Current?

Fig 1                                                                                                                                                              Fig 2

A rip current is strong narrow channel of water that flows from the surf-zone out to sea. It develops when breaking waves push onshore, then gravity pulls the water back out to sea. If the water converges into a narrow river like channel moving away from shore, a Rip Current forms.

Rip Currents are sometimes mistakenly called an undertow. However, a rip current will not pull you under the water surface. Rip currents can be 50 feet to 50 yards in width, and the strength of the current can be up to 3 to 5 mph, which can carry even a strong swimmer into deeper water beyond the sandbar. The development and persistence of a Rip Current requires a mass transport of water from WIND...WAVES and/or SWELL. The swell or waves produce a greater than normal mass transport of water onto the beach, causing an above normal volume of receding water, and the channel or Rip Current is formed.

Safety Precautions and Development Indicators of Rips

The threat to life from rip currents, has led to the establishment of the Mid Atlantic Rip Current program called MALURCS. MALURCS is Mid Atlantic Lushine Rip Current Scale, named after Jim Lushine, who began a rip current program for the southeast Florida coast several years ago.

Several Rip Current drownings occur each year along the Mid Atlantic coast. Preliminary Statistics as of July 2001 indicate that eight rip related drownings have occurred from North Carolina to Massachusetts. Several Rip-deaths also occurred in the northern Gulf of Mexico due to Tropical Storm Allison.

The Beach Patrol, lifeguards and EMS, (Emergency Medical Services) make thousands of rescues each year, saving many lives. Still Rip Current drownings each year exceed the number of lightning deaths in this U.S., and is now the number 3 weather related killer behind Heat Stress and Flooding. In an effort to assist with daily safety beach operation, the National Weather Service office in Wakefield, along with other offices along the East Coast, have embarked upon a new program to forecast Rip Currents based upon favorable meteorological patterns and conditions. A part of this program involves the local coastal NWS offices alerting the media and warning the public of this potential threat to life.

How is a Rip Forecast Created?

Each day the marine forecaster will assess the threat based on meteorological conditions such as wind speed and direction, the magnitude, period and direction of waves and swell. Once the threat is assessed, the forecaster will issue a statement describing the threat level for that day. The following are the three types of threats that our office will issue.

THREAT                                                                                                        MEANING
HIGH or DANGEROUS weather and ocean conditions are favorable for the formation of numerous Rip Currents. Several of the Rip Currents have the potential to be strong, with a 3 to 5 mph seaward pull.
MODERATE or INCREASED weather and ocean conditions are favorable for a greater than normal potential for rip current formation. Usually several rip currents will form and a few may be strong.
LOW  weather and ocean conditions for rip formation are weak. However, few rip currents could form, especially near inlets, jetties, piers and sandbars.

When a statement is issued, safety rules are included that may help a potential victim survive the affects of a rip current.
If you are a beach goer, what safety precautions should you take for Rip Currents?

What To Do if Caught in a Rip Current

What should you do if you are caught in a rip current? First, REMAIN CALM! Signal to someone on the beach, a lifeguard or a friend, that you need help. If you are a strong swimmer, try to swim parallel to the beach until you are out of the rip current. Then swim toward the shore. Never try to swim back to shore directly against the Rip current, as this can exhaust and drown even the strongest swimmer. For the less confident swimmers, wade sideways parallel to the beach until you are out of the Rip?s pull, then swim back to shore.

Next time you venture to the beach, be sure to check out the Rip Forecast first so that you can be prepared.


Summary below are preliminary statistics for SUMMER Beach Season Extending along the East Coast from Ocean City Maryland South to Currituck Beach Light North Carolina

Total Surf Rescues Ocean City 2216
Total Surf Rescues Virginia Beach 413
"Low" Threat  forecasted "Increased" Threat forecasted "High or Dangerous" Threat  forecasted 
# days = 83 # days = 40 # days = 7
# rescues = 790  # rescues = 1305 # rescues = 534
# rescues/day = 11 # rescues/day = 37 # rescues/day = 89