Beach Safety 101
Experts offer advice for a safe day at the beach.
From death-defying rip currents and red-hot sun to jellyfish stings and shark attacks, the beach can be a pretty scary place. But it doesn't have to be. Experts tell WebMD that a day at the beach can be ... well ... a day at the beach -- when you know what to look out for.
"Swimming and water activities are very healthy so long as you use appropriate caution for yourself and your family when you visit the beach," says B. Chris Brewster, president of the United States Lifesaving Association (USLA), a national organization based in Huntington Beach, Calif. The first step is knowing where danger lurks and how to avoid it.
Conquering Rip Currents
Rip currents, often misnamed rip tides or undertows, occur when surf pushes water up the slope of the beach and then gravity pulls it back. This creates concentrated rivers of water moving offshore. They tend to form as waves disperse along the beach, causing water to become trapped between the beach and a sandbar or another underwater feature. The water converges into a narrow, river-like channel moving away from the shore at high speed. And they are anything but benign. In fact, about 80% of lifeguard rescues at ocean beaches are due to rip currents and 80% of drowning deaths are also due to rip currents, Brewster says. "Rip currents can occur at any surf beach and they tend to be more intense as surf size increases," Brewster says.
The best way to protect yourself from rip currents is to avoid them.
"Select a beach where lifeguards are present because the chances of drowning are 1 in 18 million if a lifeguard is present," he says. Sounds simple enough, but there are many beaches around the U.S. where no lifeguards are provided by the local community, he says. "Make sure beaches are staffed at the time you are swimming," he adds. "At some beaches, lifeguards are only staffed until 6 p.m., for example, so the mere fact that you go to a beach where a lifeguard is present doesn't mean a lifeguard will be present when you are swimming," he says. "Check with them before you swim and ask where the safe places are," he says. "It is their role to help you find the safest place [and] if there are no lifeguards present, you may find a kiosk or signs at beach access points listing such information."
If you do happen to get caught in a rip current, "swim to the side one way or the other until you no longer have difficulties or feel yourself being pulled," Brewster advises.
Whatever you do, "don't fight the current because these currents can move up to 8 knots, which is faster than an Olympic swimmer can swim," he says. "In many cases, you will be simply unable to outpower the rip current, so you'll want to outsmart it," he says.
Another option is to tread water until someone can assist you, Brewster suggests.
"Learn to swim in the environment where you are going to be swimming," Brewster says. "You may be a confident pool swimmer, but that doesn't prepare you for conditions on the North shore of Oahu in Hawaii," he says. "Always swim near a lifeguard and never swim alone," he says. "Even a very confident swimmer can experience difficulties and if there is an emergency and you are alone, you may not be noticed."