There is a paucity of field data to describe the transition in nearshore circulation between alongshore, meandering and rip current systems. A combination of in-situ current meters and surf zone drifters are used to characterize the nearshore circulation over a transverse bar and rip morphology at Pensacola Beach, Florida in the presence of relatively low energy oblique waves. Current speeds vary in response to the relative wave height ratio (Hs/h), which defines the degree and extent of breaking over the shoal. In the absence of wave breaking the nearshore circulation was dominated by an alongshore current driven by the oblique waves. As waves begin to break across the shoal (0.2<Hs/ h<0.5) the nearshore circulation is characterized by a meandering alongshore current. As conditions became more dissipative (Hs/h>0.5), the meandering current is replaced by an unsteady rip circulation that moves offshore between the shoals before turning alongshore in the direction of wave advance outside the surf zone. The increase in wave dissipation is associated with an increase in very low frequency (VLF) variations in the current speed across the shoal and in the rip channel that caused the circulation to oscillate between an offshore and an alongshore flow. The unsteady nature of the nearshore circulation is responsible for 55% of all surf zone exits under these more dissipative conditions. In contrast, only 29% of the drifters released from the shoal exited the surf zone and bypassed the adjacent shoal with the alongshore-meandering current. While the currents had a low velocity (maximum of ~0.4 m s-1) and would not pose a significant hazard to the average swimmer, the results of this study suggest that the transverse bar and rip morphology is sufficient to create an alongshore variation in wave dissipation that forces alongshore meandering and low-energy rip circulation systems under oblique wave forcing. Copyright © 2013 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.