WHEN caught in a rip, what should you do? Swim parallel to the beach, or float with the current? The answer depends on whom you ask.
Some of Sydney's most popular beaches - Bondi, Tamarama, Maroubra, North Curl Curl - have the most dangerous rips. South Bondi's "backpacker express" is city folklore.
But the best way to escape a rip is a matter of dispute and, despite years of public awareness campaigns, the public still gets mixed messages.
Next week Manly Council will award a three-year contract to teach surf safety at its beach. The three groups vying for the role promote different messages.
Experts say the problem is that while there is a lot of research into rip-current science, how humans behave in rips is less well understood.
Craig Riddington, the founder of Surf Educate Australia, has run the surf safety program at Manly since 1998. The two-time world ironman champion believes people caught in rips should relax and float with the current.
"Most people will swim against the current to try to get out of trouble so we try to take swimming out of the equation," he said. "You can swim out of a rip, but people who swim out of rips are comfortable in a rip.''
He said people at risk of drowning needed to conserve their energy and evidence showed they were likely to float to a sandbank.
Dean Storey, the lifesaving manager for Surf Life Saving NSW, says the national body, Surf Life Saving Australia, tells men aged 18 to 34 - the most likely to swim at an unpatrolled beach - to swim parallel to the shore.
''If you're an experienced swimmer you can escape from a rip, and the best way to do that … is to swim parallel to the beach. But … you shouldn't get into that situation in the first place. You should swim at a patrolled beach.''
The need to come up with a science-based rip-safety message led to the first International Rip Current Symposium, in Florida in the US last year. Authorities from around the world, including Rob Brander from the University of NSW, used the event to share their knowledge.
Dr Brander, who researches rip currents in partnership with Surf Life Saving Australia, says the public has received mixed messages because rip currents are complex.
"We've got to stop people getting in rips in the first place, and we have to teach people how to spot them," he said.
The second symposium will be held in Sydney next year.