There are two distinct types of ocean currents that you need to be aware of when paddling out for a surf sesh. Currents can potentially be life threatening and should not be taken lightly. It’s wise to check with a lifeguard on duty (if there is one) before entering the ocean. Expect stronger currents as the surf gets bigger.
This type of ocean current runs parallel to the shore. They are caused by large incoming swells sweeping into the shoreline at an angle, then pushing water down the length of the beach in one direction. If you find yourself quite a ways down the beach from where you first paddled out, you may have been gradually swept by a longshore current. These currents are more of a hassle because you’ll find yourself paddling around more and using up a lot of energy to try to stay in place. However, Longshore currents can be potentially dangerous because they can sweep swimmers or surfers into rip currents, jetties, piers, or other hazardous structures.
Surfer’s Tip: Locate a fixed landmark (i.e. house, lifeguard tower, flagpole, distinct tree, etc.) on the beach where you enter the water or where you choose to sit in the lineup. Look back and find the landmark to see if the Longshore current is sweeping you in either direction.
Always be aware of them! They are channeled currents of water generally flowing perpendicular from the shore out towards the open sea. They are formed as a way for incoming waves and side currents to return back out to sea. As the water pools together near the shore, it finds a path of least resistance (deeper channels) and makes its way back out to the open ocean. This essentially creates a stream or river-like flow of water that is usually narrow but can be as wide as 45 meters (almost 150 feet). They typically extend from near the shoreline, through the surf zone and past the area where waves are breaking. Rip currents can be hard to detect for the average beachgoer and can pull away unsuspecting and inexperienced swimmers or surfers hundreds of feet offshore leading to unfortunate drownings.
Surfer’s Tip: Use rip currents to your advantage as a quick and efficient way to get out into the lineup (for strong and experienced swimmers/surfers).
√ A channel of churning, choppy water.
√ A difference in color; darker from stirred up sand or greener from deeper waters.
√ A line of foam, seaweed, or debris moving out towards the sea.
√ An area where there are no waves breaking (deeper channels).
Remaining calm will help with your ability to breathe.
Go with the current to avoid wasting energy and endangering yourself.
Swim or paddle parallel with the shoreline to escape the current. Once you are out of the rip current, paddle away from the current and towards the shore.
If you cannot swim or paddle to escape the current, try to relax your muscles and float or tread water allowing the current to take you out past the breaking waves. The current will weaken and you’ll be able to swim parallel to the shore away from the current.
If you’re too exhausted and cannot swim or paddle back, yell for help and wave one hand up in the air signaling that you need assistance from a lifeguard.