First To Know Weather


Rip Current Risk is Real: Gauging the danger in the Big Bend

Rip current formation diagram
Posted at 10:41 PM, Jun 23, 2024

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (WTXL) — A combination of persistent tropical disturbance action in the distant southwestern Gulf, a steady onshore wind trend, and a high demand for a way to chill on a hot summer weather pattern along the Panhandle beaches has caused the hazard of rip currents to become a prevalent danger.

Rip currents are powerful, usually narrow and elongated channels of water that flow rapidly away from the shoreline. They occur when large amounts of water from incoming waves build up on the beach and then find the path of least resistance back out to open waters.

The development of a rip current is enhanced when winds flow directly onshore to the coast. For example, a steady breeze from the southeast would cause higher rip current risk along the barrier islands of the Forgotten Coast. A southwest wind brings the heightened chances for rip currents to the eastern shores of the Big Bend coast.

Tropical disturbances, storms, and hurricanes cause additional wave action that agitates the motion of the waves and overall flow of water around the Gulf Coast.

The danger from rip currents lies in their intensive ability to quickly carry swimmers away from shore. According to Scripps News Meteorologist Scott Withers, rip currents can reach speeds of up to eight feet per second — even faster than the average speed of an Olympic swimmer. 

While rip currents don't necessarily pull swimmers underwater, those who are swept away often make the critical mistake of swimming against the force of the current, leading to exhaustion, panic, and possibly death.

The National Weather Service notes the danger from rip currents is generally higher near inlets, jetties, piers, and in breaks in sandbars.

If you find yourself caught in a rip current, it's crucial to remain calm and follow these steps:

  1. Don't fight it: The force of a rip current can overpower even the strongest of swimmers. Never swim against the current and be sure to conserve energy until you can make it safely to shore.
  2. Swim parallel to the shore: Rather than attempting to swim directly back to the beach, it's important to swim parallel to the shoreline. Rip currents are typically narrow channels of water that can easily be escaped by swimming perpendicular to them.
  3. Float and call for help: If you are unable to escape the grip of a rip current, try treading water and going with the flow. This not only conserves energy, but also allows you to wait for the current to dissipate and signal for help.

Prevention methods are key in protecting yourself and others from rip currents. They can usually be spotted while standing at slightly elevated positions along the beach. From there you'll be able to spot an area of choppy water that's typically a slightly different color and causes a break in the incoming wave pattern.
Most public beaches have lifeguards who are trained in identifying and responding to rip currents, but it's also important to pay attention to warning flags indicating hazardous swimming conditions. Additionally, try to review the local forecasts before heading to the beach. These experts typically have extensive experience in dealing with seasonal weather patterns and can alert you of potentially dangerous water conditions.

Beaches along the Forgotten and Emerald coasts often post advisory flags, indicating the level of rip current risk on a given day. A green flag typically symbolizes a low risk; yellow is a cautionary level of risk; red flag indicates high rip current risk. A double red flag is a sign of unsafe swimming conditions and people should stay out of the water entirely.

Remember, when it comes to rip currents, awareness and preparedness can make all the difference between a day of fun in the sun and a potentially life-threatening situation. 

The National Weather Service offers additional information and advice: