Metro Weekly

Safe Swim

Heading to the beach this weekend? Don't forget to bring along the common sense

Beach photo: Chris Parypa Photography
Photo: Chris Parypa Photography

As the hazy, hot and humid takes hold, it’s time for the beach with its promise of cool, refreshing waves and a gentle sea breeze. But as your deposits clear on that ocean-view condo and you start shoveling towel and bathing suit into a weekender, don’t leave behind your two other essentials: beach safety and common sense.

Really? Isn’t all that safety stuff for parents with kids?

Kids are always vulnerable around water. But so are adults. According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), drowning is still the fifth leading cause of death for people of all ages in the United States. In a report issued last year, the CDC found that between 1999 and 2010, more than 46,000 people died from drowning or more than 10 per day. And even though drowning rates are on the decrease for some age groups, they are trending up for those aged 45 to 84. Notably, adults are also more likely than others to drown in natural bodies of water such as the ocean.

But I’m a good swimmer!

Being a competent swimmer is obviously one of the best ways to stay safe in the surf. But it can be easy to overestimate your abilities. In fact, in a recent survey, the American Red Cross found that while 80 percent of Americans said they could swim, only 56 percent could actually perform the basic skills necessary to save their lives in the water. If you want to be sure of your abilities, consider an assessment by a qualified swim instructor or sign up for a set of classes before your beach break. But be aware that even a strong swimmer can drown if they don’t pay attention to the dangers.

Dangers? All I see is a calm sea and gentle breakers….

When it comes to coastal swimming, what you see is not always what you get; many dangers are not easily visible from the shore. Rip currents, for example, are one of the most deadly of underwater hazards, yet they are not always visible from the beach.

I know a ripped beach body when I see one, but what’s a ripped current?

Rip currents are converging channels of water that are moving swiftly out to sea. Unfortunately they form in the “surf zone” — the band of water where most people swim. They often occur near piers, jetties, and around and above sandbars or other variations in the sea floor. Without experience, they can be hard to spot.

According to NOAA’s National Ocean Service, rip currents can be anything from a few feet to a few yards wide and they can move up to eight feet per second. That’s faster than an Olympic swimmer. Death most often occurs because swimmers try to fight the current as they are pulled out to sea and then they tire and drown. Indeed, in 2014, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration found that rip currents were responsible for 79 percent of all ocean fatalities. Of the twelve drownings reported this past May, nine were attributed to rip currents.

So how do I avoid them and what to do if I find myself in one?

According to the Red Cross, the best plan to avoid rip currents is to always swim at least 100 feet away from piers, jetties or other underwater structures. When it comes to the surf in general, be alert for sandbars, breaks or gaps in the waves, churned up sand, or clusters of seaweed being dragged out to sea — these are all potential signs of a rip current at work.

If you are caught in a rip current, stay calm — there are techniques you can use to break free. First and foremost, don’t try to swim against the current. Instead, swim parallel to the shore until you are out of the current and then swim toward shore angling away from the current.

If you can’t swim out of the current, float or tread water until you are carried out of the pull; then swim to shore.

If none of this is working for you, wave an arm and yell for help.

If you see someone trapped in a rip current, hail a lifeguard or dial 9-1-1. If you can, throw the swimmer something that floats. Don’t swim out to help them; many people drown this way.

Sheesh, anything else?!

Absolutely: never swim alone, always swim sober, and don’t swim during or just after storms. Be aware that the ocean floor can be uneven and get deep quickly. Bigger waves can arise unexpectedly and knock you off your feet. Avoid toy inflatables and noodles as they can float you into deeper water and will never be reliable in an emergency. Finally, remember to keep hydrated and reapply your sunscreen so you don’t end up with sunstroke or sunburn.

Wow, you’ve really ruined my weekend!

Don’t be silly! Stick with lifeguard-protected beaches where they will post warnings for rip currents and other issues such as high surf and jellyfish and you will be off to a good start. Then put safety first, slather yourself in common sense, and you’re ready to frolic!

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