A wall of waves crashed into Paul Atherley at an unpatrolled beach before he found himself getting sucked out to sea. 

“It happened so quickly,” he says.

“Imagine what it would be like in a tumble dryer. You literally get churned and you’re in amongst the sand and rock and all of that kind of stuff.”

He was learning to bodysurf with a mate at Redgate Beach, three hours’ south of Perth.

Paul Atherley (left) says the experience made him “hugely respectful of the power of the water”.(Supplied: Paul Atherley)

He describes the waves pulling him under as “scary” but remembers feeling a sense of relief when he eventually popped up in an area of water that appeared flat.

But that feeling didn’t last long.

“I go to swim into shore … and the next thing I know is that I’m in part of a body of water moving out really fast and I’ve got no idea what’s going on,” he says.

“You start to swim against it and then you realise instantaneously you’ve got no chance of fighting this, you’ve got to go with it.”

He remembers spotting a surfer in the distance and raising his hand moments before his body went into shock.

“He saved my life,” Mr Atherley says. 

“I didn’t even know what a rip was. I didn’t know anything about surf.”

Mr Atherley, who is now a regular ocean swimmer, was lucky help was nearby but that’s not always the case.

Rip currents remain the number one coastal hazard contributing to 28 drowning deaths in 2023, according to Royal Life Saving Australia.

So what is a rip and what do you do if you find yourself caught in one?

What is a rip?

Essentially a rip is water flowing back out to sea. 

When waves break, they come crashing into the shoreline and push water in towards the beach. That water has to somehow get back out to sea.

“Rips form to almost provide a channel for that water to get back out,” Life Saving Victoria’s Liam O’Callaghan says. 

Liam O’Callaghan says many coastal drownings are related to rips. (Supplied: Life Saving Victoria)

He says they’re very dynamic and aren’t always a result of breaking waves.

“There’s always water moving between tide and wave and swell currents and so there will always be that ebb and flow of water,” he says. 

“That’s what generate rips and then the strength, or direction, or magnitude of rips is really variable, based on weather and conditions.”

Permanent rips can form near features like rocks or reefs. They don’t move, so neither will the channels or gutters for the water to get back out around them. 

A “flash rip” can also pop up spontaneously as a result of moving water.

“There might be a really big couple of waves that come in all together and then that volume of water has to get back out into the ocean really quickly,” Mr O’Callaghan says. 

“And so a flash rip will occur for that water to make its way out.”

He says they can last a short period of time or longer, depending on how much water there is.  

The strength of a rip depends on how turbulent or fast the water around you is moving. And they can be be pretty strong. 

“Even some of our best swimmers, on a really strong rip, wouldn’t be able to swim against the force of that water,” Mr O’Callaghan says. 

How do you spot a rip?

Mr O’Callaghan says rips can be quite difficult to spot for the untrained person, but there are a few things you can keep an eye out for. 

“It’ll be the calmer, bluer water with maybe some sand or debris floating through it that won’t have breaking waves. That’s a really kind of key consistent identifier of how to pick a rip,” he says. 

A rip is a strong current that pulls water out to sea. (Supplied: Life Saving Victoria)

Believe it or not, the safest spot to swim is where the waves are breaking. But Mr O’Callaghan says people don’t often think of it this way because it can seem quite daunting running into large crashing waves if you’re not an experienced ocean swimmer. 

“People go for the blue water that waves aren’t breaking and crashing into but that’s often the deeper water where the rip is, that’s taking that water back out to sea,” he says. 

The arrow is pointing to a rip, but shows just how difficult they can be to identify. (Supplied: Life Saving Victoria )

If there’s a section of water where the waves seem to roll through and might look lumpy, there’s a chance that could be a rip. 

If the water looks quite blue or deep it could also be a rip.

Or if a section of the water appears sandy or discoloured it could be because sand is flowing back out with the water in a rip.

Given rips can be very difficult to spot, Mr O’Callaghan says the best advice is to swim at patrolled beaches.  

“For the most part, and because they’re so dynamic in how they can form spontaneously, it really is important to … swim between the flags, because that’s where training lifesavers can help you avoid rips to begin with,” he says.

What if you’re stuck in a rip?

Firstly, don’t panic.

It’s probably a lot easier said than done but Mr O’Callaghan says people often find themselves in trouble when they panic.

“If you do feel like you’re in a rip, and you’re floating away from the the area that you were swimming, the best thing is to stay calm,” he says.

“Raise an arm to seek help and float with the current — don’t swim against it.”  

Seaweed or debris can gather where a rip is and the water may appear darker.(Supplied: Life Saving Victoria)

If you can swim, Mr O’Callaghan advises swimming parallel to the shore towards the breaking waves.

But if you can’t, conserve your energy and stay calm. 

“Don’t fight against the current, float with it,” he says. 

It’s also important to note that if you are caught in a rip, you’re only going to go as far as the back of the breaking waves.

“In general, they’ll take you out beyond the breaking waves and then that water will circle back into the title system and flow back into the waves that are then breaking back onto shore,” Mr O’Callaghan says.  

Swimming at a patrolled beach is the safest option. (Supplied: Life Saving Victoria)

Another tip? Be aware of the conditions on the day as that will determine how strong or dangerous the surf is. 

Reading safety signs at a beach and refreshing your water safety skills are key, but the main thing is to know your limitations. 

“Know your ability to swim and maintain your own safety, but also your ability to read and assess the beach conditions,” he says. 

LSV says people can be pulled into the path of a rip even if they enter the water at a safe location.(Supplied: Life Saving Victoria)

What if someone you’re with gets stuck in a rip? 

Swimming with a group of people is recommended for safety but if a friend or family member happens to get stuck in a rip you should alert authorities by calling triple-0. 

Know your own ability in the water and don’t push your limits. (Supplied: Life Saving Victoria )

If it’s unsafe for you to enter the water, keep an eye on the person in the water so you can help locate them when assistance arrives. 

Mr O’Callaghan says those with ocean skills, such as surfers, do often help people who find themselves in trouble. But knowing your limitations is key.

“We really don’t want people pushing themselves beyond their own limitation and getting into trouble as well.”