Skip to content

This Is Northern New South Wales

The Silent Monster

When people are asked; “What do you think is the most dangerous thing about surfing or ocean swimming?”, their most common reply is “Sharks”, “Rocks” and even “Sand”. But actually it’s other surfers!!!! More surfers and swimmers, especially beginners are injured by being hit or run over by other surfers.

Injuries can be repaired. But to the inexperienced, there is a silent monster that lurks at most beaches which is responsible for more DEATHS per year than any other cause! And they should be scared, really scared of it! It’s name, THE RIP.

I had an experience whilst fishing at Tallow’s in a nice hole/rip where I was watching a swimmer about 20 metres out in front of me clearly struggling to swim in against the rip, and going nowhere! He raised his arm for help, so I said nothing but pointed to my right towards Broken Head, he fortunately turned and swam about ten strokes and stood up on the sand bank and walked in. He was obviously Northern European judging by his alabaster suntan, he walked past me with his head down and never said a word, maybe he was in shock or embarrassed or just felt stupid, whatever it was I was pleased I didn’t have to strip off and save the silly bugger!

What is a rip?
– A rip is a current that often starts near the shore and flows out to sea.
– All that water that comes into the shore has to find its way back out to the ocean.
– That inward flow falls into deep channels and those deep channels create a current, which we call a rip.
– A rip moves fastest when the tide is running from high to low, and that they have been known to move as quickly as three metres a second – faster than an Olympic swimmer.
– By the time most people realise they’re heading offshore, in 30 seconds they’re already out.

How to spot a rip?
The most common type of rip looks like a calm, dark path sitting among the breaking waves – an inviting patch of ocean for inexperienced beach-goers.

The above photo is Tallow Beach with some swell causing numerous rips along the entire beach.
NOTE : The opening photo of Tallow Beach on a calm day with no rips, because of the lack of wave action.

Rips can look different depending on conditions, but the most common type of rip looks like a dark path going out through the white water. Because it’s sitting in a deep channel, deeper water is always darker and waves don’t break as much in deep channels. If you’re standing on the beach it’s really important to look at the surf for five or 10 minutes and if you start seeing these persistent dark gaps that look like paths – they can go straight, they can go at angles – chances are that’s a rip current.

On a completely flat day, there will be no rips, but if there are any waves breaking, chances are they will be there. Often it’s those perfect, beautiful sunny days, the waves aren’t that big so people go in the water and the rips are flowing pretty fast.

How to escape a rip?

– If you find yourself caught in a rip the worst thing you can do is PANIC To escape a rip you can swim parallel to the beach, but at all times it is important to conserve your energy as much as possible and allow the waves to assist you back to shore.

– Depending on the ability of the person in the rip they may be able to swim out immediately, but for those weaker swimmers it’s important that they conserve their energy and float and wait for assistance.

– If you realise you’re going offshore, the main thing is to try to relax by staying afloat, tread water or just “Dog paddle” because you will float, the rip won’t pull you under. You are at more risk of drowning fighting a rip than you are of being eaten by what you might imagine may be lurking out the back!

– If there are people around then signal to them, raise your arm, otherwise if you can, swim slowly and gently parallel to the beach towards the white water.
Wherever you see white water and breaking waves means it’s shallower, and white water will bring you back to the beach.

Don’t panic

– People start to panic once they look back and they realise they’re way off shore – that’s scary to a lot of people” They start to swim back to the beach, which means swimming against the rip, and that doesn’t take them anywhere and they start going backwards and they get more scared and it can really escalate from there.

– Stay calm, tread water and allow the rip to carry you along, and signal for help, you will survive.

– It’s easy to say ‘don’t panic, stay afloat’, but it really is important to remember you float, and the rip’s just going to take you for a ride.

Watermen and Women/Surfers can look at any beach and instantly recognize where the rips are, because they know it’s an easy way out to the lineup! The classic fixed rip is in the corner of Tallows, also known as “The Backpacker Express”. Another fixed rip is in front of the toilets at Watego’s which heads towards the Pass, this area is known by local          surfers as “Bullshits” for a very good reason, ask the Lifeguard Steve Mills, Steve had so many rescues over Christmas he had to get a jet ski in to help!

At the main beach between the Groyne and the Wreck is another fixed Rip which sadly claimed two lives recently.

So parents! Take your kids to the beach, even if they are not aspiring to be surfers and point out what a rip looks like, educate them, the Lighthouse is the best venue. Because even if they are not surfers, being Aussies, they will end up in the Ocean sometime in their lives.

Max Pendergast is a born and bred Byron Bay local who has had a lifelong affinity with the ocean.