Holiday water safety. If in doubt, don’t go out.
World First staff writer, Martin D, is also a trained and qualified RNLI Beach Lifeguard. Following the recent drowning of holiday makers at home and abroad he explains how you can avoid getting in trouble in the sea while on your holidays and what to do if you see others in trouble.
There have been some disturbing incidents recently on beaches in the UK and Cyprus. In late October three people died at Mawgan Porth beach in Cornwall and in early November two British tourists died in the sea off Pathos.
These incidents are terrible tragedies made all the more so by the fact that, as far as I can tell from reading the reports, they were avoidable.
In both incidents there are a couple of common threads. Firstly there were no lifeguards present at either of the beaches in question because of the time of the year. Secondly, it appears that in both incidents the people who died had entered the water to save someone else who had got into trouble. In both incidents the people who had got into trouble in the first place survived.
This is typical of multiple incidents where people enter the water without any kind of experience, equipment or know-how and end up getting in trouble themselves, so making the situation even worse. While no one could possibly stand by and do nothing – I doubt if I could either – the most important thing is to think of yourself. If it’s dangerous to enter the water, and you don’t have rescue equipment or are not up to the physical effort, don’t do it. In the Cyprus incident both rescuers died of heart attacks following the rescue and attempts at CPR.
When I qualified for my RNLI Beach Lifeguard qualification I found out that my own safety, as a potential rescuer, should be among the first things I think about in any rescue situation. After all, if I am out of action what use am I? It might seem selfish but you will only be able to do anything to help if you are alive and well and in a fit state to help.
One of the techniques we learnt during the course of our training was how to extricate ourselves from and block panicking swimmers who are trying to grab hold. People who are drowning will reach out to anything to try and stay afloat so this technique can save both your life and theirs.
So what can you do to protect yourself and your family when you are away on your holidays? A few simple rules and tit bits of knowledge could save your life.
Only swim when a lifeguard is present
If you are unsure of the sea conditions, don’t enter the water unless lifeguards are present. This is never more pertinent than when at unfamiliar beaches where you do not know the conditions. Even the most experienced open water swimmers and water users can get into trouble in unfamiliar conditions. If lifeguards are present and you see someone in trouble, get the lifeguards’ attention by raising and waving your arms.
It is also vital to remember to swim ONLY between the red and yellow flags when life guards are present. This is the patrolled area and the safest place to be as the lifeguards will choose where it is based on their extensive knowledge of the beach. Anywhere outside of the flags is potentially dangerous.
If there is no lifeguard to help, look for other help or equipment
In both incidents in Cornwall and Cyprus, there were no lifeguards present at the beaches where the drowning occurred. This means help was not at immediate hand in either incident. So what could be done? The most important thing is to alert the emergency services IMMEDIATELY. Get someone to call them, giving the nature of the problem and the location while you work out what you might be able to do. If the casualty can hear you, reassure them but don’t enter the water unless you are ABSOLUTELY 100% SURE you can help. Look for life rings, floatation devices (surfboards) or rope to throw so the casualty can stay afloat until help comes. Only enter the water as a last resort and NEVER without a floatation device.
Learn how to spot a rip current
In both incidents in Cyprus and Cornwall it was cited that the casualties were caught in rip currents.
Rip currents are areas in the sea where moving bodies of water go out to sea or run parallel to the shore. Currents can be very strong and are often the result of waves bringing water to the shore. As the waves retreat the water heads back out to sea by the quickest route. Currents can be seen from the beach as they will often be areas where the water surface is ruffled and broken up. They may form next to piers or rocky reefs or where there are sandbars. Confusingly, rips will often be areas where waves don’t break so may appear to be safer places to swim. If in doubt, stay ashore.
Learn how to react if you are being swept out to sea
If you inadvertently swim into a current and are being carried out to sea, DON’T PANIC. This is the most important thing to remember, although it’s hard to avoid if you fear for your life. The thing is that when people panic they lose all sense of reason and are unable to think clearly about their situation. If you are caught in a current there is no point in swimming against it to the shore as you will only tire quickly and not get anywhere. The best thing to do is stay calm and not expend any vital energy. If you are wearing a full wetsuit or have any other kind of flotation device, allow it to take your weight in the water (wetsuits float and can often carry your weight enough to let you rest) while you rest with your head back and above the water. DO NOT throw it away to swim – as some do - as it is your lifeline. If you can, signal for help.
Every current will dissipate once it reaches deeper water so the best chances are to go with it and then swim in where there is no current. Another option is to swim perpendicular to the current and then head in towards the beach once you are out of it.
Be aware of the danger of ‘near drowning’
If you have been in an incident where you or a casualty have swallowed water it is vital to get medical help at hospital. This is because all casualties can have serious problems up to 72 hours after incidents, even though they may feel well directly after the incident. While you can’t make someone attend hospital, you can suggest it strongly and recommend it to any companions.
Avoid the water if…
If you have been drinking or have just eaten, don’t go in the water. Also, don’t go in if it is cold and you don’t have a wetsuit. Cold will make you tire very quickly. Swimming fully clothed will make you tire more quickly too. Also, avoid swimming if you are at all unsure of the conditions. Offshore winds (which blow from the land to the sea) can cause you to be blown out to sea if you are on a lilo or in a dinghy.
Watch your kids like a hawk
Children love the water. But just because they have a boogie board or blow up toy, it doesn’t mean they will be safe and you can stop worrying about them. Children can slip off a lilo easily or get swept out to sea on a boogie board. The only safe thing to do is make them swim ONLY where there are lifeguards present and between the red and yellow flags. AND WATCH THEM LIKE A HAWK.
Where you stand with travel insurance
Every case is different and we are unable to comment directly on the events at both Mawgan Porth and Pathos. However, there are a couple of points to make regarding your position with travel insurance when it comes to water safety.
Firstly, if you put yourself in mortal danger you aren’t covered, unless it’s to save a life.
Secondly, if you enter the water – for any reason - having consumed excessive alcohol you won’t be covered.
Finally, if you have been involved in an accident, have swallowed water and have to be monitored in hospital for 72 hours, your EHIC or travel cover will cover it.
Go safe, swim safe.