STORMFAX® Guide to Safe Ocean Swimming

Whether your favorite activity is swimming, body surfing, rafting, kayaking or boogie boarding, here are the major causes of accidents and ways you can avoid injury. (Download/Print)

Dangerous Surf Conditions  

Lateral Currents
Lateral (also known as "littoral") currents flow parallel to the beach. They range in speed from fast-flowing to subtle movement. These currents pose little threat to the average swimmer, but weaker swimmers can be pulled into rip currents and heavy surf simply by the force of lateral currents.

Rip Currents
Rip currents are the major cause of surf accidents. They are characterized by a strong flow of water rushing back out to sea.  Rip currents occur when large amounts of water accumulate near shore due to natural wave action.  Since water seeks its own level, the broken waves take the path of least resistance.  This powerful flow of water can pull even strong swimmers into deep water.  Generally, the size and strength of the rip currents are in proportion to the size and frequency of the wave action - the larger the waves, the stronger the rip currents.  Depending on lateral currents, rip currents can be fixed at one location or can occur at more than one point along the beach.  Large rip currents can be recognized by the sandy discoloration of the water.

Backwash usually occurs with high tides on beaches that rise sharply away from the water's edge.  Backwash occurs when the water remaining on the beach returns forcefully to the surf beneath later incoming waves.  It is particularly dangerous for small children playing near the water's edge.  Even in the short distance between breaking waves and deep water, backwash is powerful enough to knock people off their feet.

Shore Break
Shore break can occur at high tide when heavy surf conditions cause large waves to break on the beach with little or no water under them.  Shore break can be particularly dangerous to a swimmer who is caught in such a wave because the wave can slam the swimmer on the beach, causing injury.  Shore break is the most frequent cause of serious back, neck and shoulder injuries at the beach.  Avoid body surfing during shore break conditions.

Swimming Safety Advice