Strong currents and surfing

Posted by in Portugal, Surfing

Hey there! Yesterday I got a little wake up call regarding strong currents and surfing. I often get mails and phone calls from people who wonder what rips are, how they work and whether they are dangerous or not. Soooo, I thought Id take this opportunity and try to explain in a simplified manner how it all fits together.

Just to make one thing clear from the start: currents themselves are rarely dangerous directly. They rarely drag you under water, though many may think so, but they can be indirectly dangerous because they wear you out if you dont know what to do. And hence the panic creeps in, and panic can in turn lead to serious accidents.

How do currents form in the ocean?

Rip Current:

Rips, or channels, are streams that formes because of water / waves travelling towards shore, and they need to find their way back out somewhere. This is where currents form. These currents or separate water channels are useful when you want to get back out to sea again. So dont think its all bad.

In the current the water is deeper than the areas where waves are crashing in. In the channels waves dont really break. You can often see the rip by the texture of the water as explained below.

Rip current

Characteristics of a rip current can be more “choppy”, uneven and merky waters, and if you’re watching a land mark on land and you will see that you are moving away from it without trying. This canbe slow or fast, depending on how strong the current is.

Long shore current

Long shore current is flowing water formed a little further out from shore and leading the water parallel to the shoreline to either right or left.

Long shore current

Three areas in the surf you should know about

There are many concepts in surfing, and here are 3 that you should know when you are going out surfing. (Remember to bring the instructor if you are a beginner):


The channel is a rip that we can use to our advantage to get faster out to the lineup (the queue of surfers who are waiting for their turn on the peak)However, we would rather avoid this area when going out of the water.

If you are not sure how to know if you are in a current or not, see if when you paddle for your life you are still not getting anywhere. That is a probably sign you are in a current. Try to see in which direction the rip drags you and start paddling at a 90 degrees angle away from the stream, unless you use it as a transport belt out to the peak ..

Rip current

It is easy to see the rip as it often drags people out like a delivery belt, and it does not have breaking waves normally. These currents lose their power further out to sea, in the so-called “head of rip“. See black and white image ..


The peak is where the wave starts to break and it is just where you want to be to catch waves 😀


Impact zone

This is the area on the inside of the peak, where you basically get the waves in your head 😀 No place to sit for a long time.. Where you see lots of white foam, that is where you will find the impact zone. It is not too dangerous or anything, it’s just water, but it can flick you off the board or push you towards the beach if you cant get either over or under the wave. So it can be good to know that its an idea to move away from here.

Impact zone

Another hot top is to be aware that its not waves here constantly. They travel in groups, or “sets” as they are called, so if you feel that the crashing waves are never ending, just stay calm. You do get a little break in between. There is rarely a set of more than 10 waves..

Impact zone og peak

When paddling out of this zone you may want to paddle parallel to the beach until you get outside, or at an angle slightly towards the peak.

The surf yesterday

It had been a while since the last surf and my paddle muscles had clearly become like noodles in the meantime. Furthermore, the water was really cold, so I put on my thickest vwetsuit I have; a 5″4. This inhibits the freedom of movement somewhat, and makes you a little faster tired. But then in return you stay warmer longer. I reccommend Patagonia suits by the way…

Long story short; it was a loooot of current yesterday, despite seemingly easiy conditions. I paddled like a freakin hero, but even though I knew where I was going and how the current worked, it was not easy to stay in position. I was trapped inside the so-called “impact zone” 3-4 times and had to paddle sideways away from there every time, all while getting waves in the head.

It’s kinda fun to fight against Mother Nature, but it’s also good to keep in mind that she usually wins, so better be smart, save effort, and get out BEFORE you are TOTALLY worn out. You never know how long it might take just to get back out of the water again. It occurred to me yesterday… And I spent a good 30 minutes getting back to the beach.

Here are a few golden rules when it comes to rips and currents:

  1. Use a rip / channel as a conveyor belt to get out to the peak.
  2. Use the impact zone when you want to get out.
  3. Go back in BEFORE you are completely exhausted, its good to have a little paddle forces leftfor the road home.
  4. DO NOT PANIC! Remember that the currents do not pull you down and under water, but they pull you in a direction either outward or along the beach.
  5. There is no shame in asking for help! The signal that you are in distress and need help is a fist or open palm held up and over your head.

emergency hand signals


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