Great lesson on rip tides

I had a great lesson yesterday (the hard way) on rip tides while kayak surfing at the north end of Ocean Beach, San Francisco.

Setting the scene: 4 paddlers - Instructor Trainers Sean Morley and Ryan Rushton, and L5 instructor trainees myself and Scott Dahlquist. Swell was 3-5 feet at 15 seconds. Ocean Beach is filled with sand bars (so multiple inner and outer breaks) and a bit of side current. I’ve never surfed there before because it does have a reputation as being very challenging. After a bit of long boat surfing we started heading in. I wait out one big set, which when it looks like has passed I then start heading in. Another big set comes in and I turn to face back outside and completely mis-time a wave and try to climb a vertical wall (causing me to go vertical). Everything goes fast from here, so fast descriptions: blown roll, paddle swim a bit, back deck ride on Sean Morley’s Hammer to get me much closer to shore, drops me off at a spot where I can touch bottom (was getting washed off his back deck there anyway), and he heads off to go round up my wayward kayak.

From that point, I can just stand on bottom with head out of water between waves. I try to walk forward, but find the current too strong to make progress. Literally every time we are between waves, all I can do with my feet on the bottom is hold position. Try paddle swimming. Sure doesn’t seem like I am getting anywhere, and quite possibly I am losing ground. I kept getting battered by waves. Dozens of waves. Was wondering what to do. Considered trying to call over one of the others for another back deck ride.

Finally got presence of mind to figure out that that the standard current shouldn’t be pushing me out (there is a northward current along shore), so maybe I was in a rip. So I started paddle swimming south. Seemed like within 5-10 feet I was in much shallower water (waist deep) and no noticeable current and can easy walk out, even in my exhausted state. Wow. Amazing difference.

My first experience in a rip tide.

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Great little story. Glad you made it out ok.

I see rip currents around our sea walls all the time, but havent had the pleasure of swimming in one yet (thankfully). Normally I just ride out with them to lessen the effort up wind (typically due west in my case).

Riding up a vertical wall of water is a $hitty place to be for a moment in time. Although I havent been truly vertical like you probably were, I’ve come close a couple times when im playing just outside medium size shorebreak and an outlier comes through unexpectedly similar to your situation. I’ve made it through every time ok, but had a couple calls closer than I’d prefer.

Your story is a good reminder of why all high stress disciplines drill, drill, drill, and drill some more, because when you’re in the middle of the crap, only instinct exists. Way to think it through and get out ok. Although in the case of a rip tide swim or paddling into a 5’ breaking wave, I dont know that I really want to or can safely practice that :slight_smile:

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Good story. Rip tides take quite a few Lake Michigan swimmers. I like your statements “was wondering what to do” and “finally had presence of mind”. I think that trying to calm down and take a moment to think can be much more helpful than just reacting and doing something/anything that could well make things worse. I remember being pinned against a tree in fast water and I was right on the edge of being swamped. For whatever reason I stopped to think even though my gut reaction was to make a power move to try to free myself. I ended up freeing myself slowly and carefully.

Growing up on the Washington coast the undertow took a lot of people over the years. Dangerous stuff. Most people don’t stop and calmly assess the situation like you did.

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Not so sure about the “calmly” part…

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Lots of things in your post sound very familiar. “Ocean Beach” in San Francisco to those who don’t know the spot sounds very benign. When the surf is big there, it is one of the scariest places I have ever been dumb enough to surf by myself: huge waves and very strong currents that keep pulling you into massive beat downs. The local board surfers may also just enjoy watching you suffer, depending on how feral the crowd is feeling. I’ve also had the same “rip- aha epiphany” experience a number of times when I find myself swimming, flailing, trying to make progress, before my brain finally says -" hey stupid you are swimming against the rip." I’ve even done this on a longboard, paddling for all I am worth and making zero progress. Once you have had the experience you understand how easy it is for inexperienced ocean swimmers to get sucked out and die trying to fight it. And for the aha epiphany — the feeling of salvation is so remarkable when you just swim accross the rip and let the waves wash you in.


Great story. Wish we had more like it.

Not sure if this will work (Facebook doesn’t always like for their photos to e seen outside of FB), but here are some photos from day 2 and 3 of our training. Day 3 was the rip tide incident.

I had to deal with occasional rip tides swimming off the NJ shore when I was young, and while they were mild compared to some places like where there is big surf they were still more than I could swim directly against me at a whopping 84 pounds.

We had been told what to do, but even with knowing it took me a few moments to remember the first time. It can feel really disturbing. I always managed to wait it out and swim out of it before the life guard had to come and get me, but it was probably close a couple of times.

Unfortunately for the life guards my younger sister didn’t care how far from shore she was, she was half fish. After the life guard had to go get her three times in one morning because she would get too far out and not care, my parents were given extra orders about managing her.

I have never had to deal with a super strong rip tide, but it is something that is always worth a caution to people less familiar with swimming in the ocean.


Tourists are always getting into them here.

I find it good to fish them sometimes. Bait gets stirred up , fish hang out sometimes and my rig gets moved to deeper water.

For a moment I thought that you were fishing the tourists. :grin:

They are in season…

Good write-up; thanks for posting it.

When I was a kid, my little brother went out and got “swept out in an undertow” off of Cape Cod. Nobody used the term rip currents then. He did not know how to swim (not that he would’ve been able to get out of trouble anyway). My mother, who did know how to swim, tried to fetch him but she, too, got pushed out from shore, and fast.

Luckily, a friend was with us, and he must’ve known what the current was doing and how to deal with it.

The incident made a big impression on me. Both of them had swallowed a lot of water, and at home my mother went into a kind of shock, staying in bed for a day or two afterward and doing absolutely nothing.

Fast forward to 2011, when I was getting some private coaching in kayaking in surf with Jen Kleck. We went over some things on the beach first before paddling out. Then she had me examine the shoreline and asked which spot I planned to go out. I pointed to what I was sure was a rip current and she joked, “No cheating! Yes, you can use that to help get out but I want you to do it the harder way.”

I would never knowingly try to return against a rip, but if there is enough wave activity around me, I would not be able to see it.

Glad you figured it out!