When you're starting out surfing make sure you're aware of of rip currents, what they do and what they look like. I am writing this because during a recent surf at Woolacombe (see my post: Second Time Out) the Rip Current towards the rocks was surprisingly strong.
Rip currents occur where weaker areas of surf allow the sea to circulate and create a channel where there is a current heading back out to sea; as it circulates it also creates currents, towards the channel, heading parallel to the beach. They are more likely to occur on windy days. As long as you are aware of how they work they needn't be dangerous and are actually useful to paddle out in when you're a more advanced surfer. You will usually find them annoying as they drag you one way or another along the beach and mean a constant battle to stay roughly where you are. They are most dangerous for weak swimmers who may get sucked out of their depth unexpectedly or when they are dragging you towards rocks. I have found a couple of pictures online showing how they work:
The second one, as well as useful information, has some obvious comedic value! Unfortunately, there won't always - conveniently - be a screaming, waving swimmer indicating the presence of a rip current. The main signs are:
- A flatter area of surf
- Choppy water inbetween areas with cleaner waves
- Murky water where sand is visible
- Whitewater, sand and debris seen to be moving away from the shore
I have spent a lot of time in the sea, swimming and windsurfing, so I knew what rip currents feel like, but I must admit that I wasn't totally aware of what they look like and how to recognize them from the beach. Here are some photographs to help you spot them:
If you've any reservations swim and surf on a beach patrolled by lifeguards (eg. Woolacombe, Croyde and Saunton) and ask the lifeguards for advice.
Rip Currents are not 'undertows' and will not pull you under the water so as long as you're a good swimmer and you swim parallel to the beach to get out of one, they're not too dangerous. However, it certainly helps to know where they are and how they work.