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Michigan City Parks & Recreation Department

A Citizen & Visitor’s Guide

Rip Currents

What is a rip current?

Rip Currents are the most threatening natural hazard along the shores of beautiful Lake Michigan.

A rip current is a "seaward" moving current. Try to imagine a sandy "underwater river" suddenly forming and occurring on the bottom of the lake. Rips are created when accumulating waves on shore use gravity to get back into open sea. Something gives - the sandbars on the lake floor - and everything in its path is catapulted out into open sea.

rip current aerialrip current aerial close-up

This is where the term "rip" comes from - the current rips the sandbar away and creates the underwater river. Rip currents also exist in areas where the strength of waves are weakened by objects such as rocks, jetties, piers, and even large groups of bathers. Rip currents are sometimes mistakenly called "rip tides" or "undertows." Although this terminology attempts to refer to similar phenomenon, it is a bit misleading as rip currents are not directly associated with tides and it does not pull people under - RIPS PULL VICTIMS AWAY FROM THE BEACH DEEP INTO THE LAKE.

A sudden break in an offshore sandbar can release water rapidly back into the deep lake, creating a rip current.

rip current grand avenue beachrip current diagram

What to Look for:

Although rips are not always easily discernible to the untrained eye, there are several signs that rips are present. Look for the following indicators to determine presence and location:

  • Unusual choppiness and breaking waves
  • Discolored water and sand turning over
  • Debris and foam moving out into the lake

What to do if Caught in a Rip Current:

The United States Lifesaving Association has found that 80% of rescues by lifeguards involve saving those caught in rip currents. Stay out of the lake when there are breaking waves.

  • Don't panic and don't fight the current. Save your strength - let the rip take you out but stay above water. Rips will not take you under, but you must tread or float. Waves can be powerful!
  • Swim parallel to the shore until you get out of the rip, then tread and wave for help or swim back to shore.

Helpful Hints:

  • Don't swim at unguarded beaches.
  • If you see a swimmer struggling, try to throw the swimmer a floating object and call for help.