What are riptides and why are they so dangerous? Advice and what to do if you get stuck in one

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As summer arrives in the UK and temperatures rise, it can be tempting to cool off in a nearby sea or river - but this can lead to dangerous riptides.

The dangers of riptides have come into focus this month following the deaths of a 12 year-old girl and 17 year-old boy in Bournemouth. Sunnah Khan, 12, and Joe Abbess, 17, were swimming in the sea on May 31 next to Bournemouth Pier when they and eight others got into difficulty in the water.

After being rescued from the sea, lifeguards and paramedics tried to resuscitate them on the sand. However, despite being airlifted to hospital, both were declared dead a short time later.

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In a hearing to open the inquest proceedings at Bournemouth Town Hall today, it was suggested the two children drowned after getting caught in a “sudden riptide” in the area. A police investigation is underway looking into the circumstances around the tragic deaths.

Below we look at what a riptide is, why they are so dangerous and advice if you get stuck in one.

What is a riptide?

Riptides are strong currents that occur when water that has been pushed towards land by the sea, is tracking back out, creating a channel of water which pulls back out to sea.

They tend to flow at 1–2mph but can reach 4–5mph,making it extremely difficult to swim. They are especially powerful in larger surfs and can often appear next to piers or jetties.

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Why are riptides so dangerous? 

The riptides can be extremely strong, making it very difficult to swim and move in the water, often resulting in drowning.

How to spot and avoid a riptide

Rip currents can be difficult to spot, but are sometimes identified by a channel of churning, choppy water on the sea’s surface. According to the RNLI, even the most experienced beachgoers can be caught out by rips, so don’t be afraid to ask lifeguards for advice - they will show you how you can identify and avoid rips.

What to do if you get caught in a riptide?

If you do find yourself caught in a riptide, the RNLI advise the following:

  • Don’t try to swim against it or you’ll get exhausted.
  • If you can stand, wade don’t swim.
  • If you can, swim parallel to the shore until free of the rip and then head for shore.
  • Always raise your hand and shout for help.

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