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The Rip Survivor Experience

By Dr Rob Brander on April 12, 2011 in Other

Did you see the episode of Bondi Rescue when they did the resuscitation of a Korean student? It was unbelievable. I found myself becoming emotional just watching it. The boys in blue are pretty impressive. A few days later I was talking about it with my barber Sam at Mr Men’s* on Bondi Road, and he mentioned that it was mostly Asian tourists getting in trouble at the beach**. But is it? Wil Anderson seemed to think so when he tweeted along those lines during the Logies last year. Watching the show, it definitely seems like it’s mostly tourists who are getting pulled out of rips, but Bondi is a tourist mecca. Go to Maroubra and the lifeguards will tell you the M5 is to blame. At Coogee, the shore dump doesn’t discriminate.

In a typical year, the combined number of rescues on Australian beaches by professional lifeguards and volunteer lifesavers is anywhere from 15,000 to 25,000. Throw in the rescues done by surfers and it’s probably double that. One thing we do know is that close to 90% of all rescues on our beaches are related to rip currents. So a very conservative estimate is that over the last 10 years probably 400,000 people have been rescued in rips. Think about that for a second. That’s insane! Who are these people?

The truth is, we don’t really know. Lifeguards record some data associated with rescues but are far too busy to get detailed information from everyone they rescue. Another unknown is what creates the rescue in the first place. Yes, people swim outside of the flags and get caught in rips, but what makes them get in trouble and panic? Do they think they’re going to be pulled under, end up way offshore as shark bait, or does the fact that they seem to have no control over the situation scare the crap out of them? How do the people who get out of rips by themselves manage it? Do they stay afloat, swim parallel to the beach or do something else?

Despite years of scientific measurements of rip currents, no one has really thought to actually talk to the people who are getting caught in rips – until now. The University of New South Wales and Surf Life Saving Australia have started working on a project that will help us understand more about ‘rip current survivors’. An online survey questionnaire has been created for people to take the researchers through their experience in a rip (see the box below). It has been promoted through Aquabumps and ABC Radio (and now The Beast) and the response in just a short period of time has been amazing. It’s too soon to interpret the results (that’s what graduate students are for) but I have no doubt the outcomes will help modify educational strategies to reduce the incidence of rescues and drownings in the future. I’ll keep you posted.

*fellas, this is a local institution, and if you’re not getting your hair cut here, you really should be.

**I wonder if this will get me a free haircut?

If you’ve ever been caught in a rip, or know someone who has, please visit and tell us about your experience. We’re also keen to talk to people in person, so please contact us if interested.