Articles | Volume 12, issue 4
Research article
26 Apr 2012
Research article |  | 26 Apr 2012

Surveying rip current survivors: preliminary insights into the experiences of being caught in rip currents

D. Drozdzewski, W. Shaw, D. Dominey-Howes, R. Brander, T. Walton, A. Gero, S. Sherker, J. Goff, and B. Edwick

Abstract. This paper begins a process of addressing a significant gap in knowledge about people's responses to being caught in rip currents. While rip currents are the primary hazard facing recreational ocean swimmers in Australia, debate exists about the best advice to give swimmers caught in rip currents. Such surf rescue advice – on what to do and how to respond when caught in a rip – relies on empirical evidence. However, at present, knowledge about swimmers reactions and responses to rip currents is limited. This gap is a considerable barrier to providing effective advice to beach goers and to understanding how this advice is utilised (or not) when actually caught in the rip current.

This paper reports the findings of a pilot study that focussed on garnering a better understanding of swimmers' experiences when caught in rip currents. A large scale questionnaire survey instrument generated data about rip current survivors' demographics, knowledge of beach safety and their reactions and responses when caught in a rip current. A mix of online and paper surveys produced a total of 671 completed surveys. Respondents were predominantly an informed group in terms of rip current knowledge, beach experience and had a high self-rated swimming ability. Preliminary insights from the survey show that most respondents recalled a "swim across the rip/parallel to the beach" message when caught in the rip and most escaped unassisted by acting on this message. However, while nearly a quarter of respondents recalled a message of "not to panic", short answer responses revealed that the onset of panic inhibited some respondents from recalling or enacting any other type of beach safety message when caught in the rip current. Results also showed that despite the research sample being younger, competent and frequent ocean swimmers, they were more likely to swim at unpatrolled beaches and outside of the red and yellow safety flags. Moreover, they were still caught in a rip current and they panicked. The findings of this study have significant implications for a range of demographic groups of differing beach safety knowledge and swimming ability who may be caught in rip currents behave, we know very little about how beach goers may respond to being caught in them.