It's been said a million times in a million ways, but what a year it has been. Now, as a semblance of normality returns to daily life, people are itching to do all those things they have been missing, and top of that list for many is getting back to the beach.
But, before you grab your gear and head to the sands, it's important to be aware that the coast is a natural environment that needs to be respected as well as enjoyed. Cue Mike Lay; Finisterre Ambassador and an RNLI beach lifeguard of 11 years with some important safety tips for summer beachgoers.
At the start of April I resumed work as an RNLI lifeguard at Sennen, my local beach in West Cornwall. The very start of the season is always quiet, the beaches patrolled by small teams of lifeguards and swimmers often outnumbered by wrapped-up dog walkers. This year in particular there is a sense of it being the calm before the storm.
Last year saw unprecedented visitor numbers in Cornwall as domestic holidaying boomed. While this afforded many the opportunity to discover the beauty available on their doorstep, it also posed a severe challenge when it came to keeping people safe. The South West region experienced a significant increase in coastal casualties and, tragically, fatalities. With this in mind, as well as the belief that education has a major role to play in the prevention of such incidents, I have tried to put together a list of practical ways to keep safe at the beach.
1) Always Visit a Lifeguarded Beach
This is probably the most effective thing you can do. If you visit an RNLI lifeguarded beach between the hours of 10am and 6pm you'll have a team of skilled professional lifeguards who were collectively responsible in 2020 for saving 110 lives, aiding 25,172 people and responding to 10,687 incidents. They're there to look after everybody, whether you're a first time beach goer or life-long surfer, anybody can get in to trouble in the sea and if you follow this advice then a lifeguard will be there to help if you find yourself in difficulty. That being said, not all beaches are lifeguarded, there are many smaller, out of the way spots which you might want to explore. The rest of this list is aimed at the times you might not find red and yellow flags, but I will once again stress the importance of going to a lifeguarded beach if you are an inexperienced beach goer or are planning on spending a lot of time in the water.
2) Know What a Rip Current Looks Like
From my 11 years as a beach lifeguard, I know rips are far and away the greatest cause of danger for swimmers and surfers in the sea. Fortunately there are several ways of spotting rips and several principles that apply to their formation that you can learn to avoid. Rip currents are areas of water pulling or moving in a certain direction, often out to sea. They form when the energy that arrives in waves to a beach needs to escape and does so through deep water channels. These channels are often found next to large structures like cliffs, harbour walls or rocky outcrops, the rips in these places are permanent and vary in intensity according to the swell (bigger waves = stronger rips). Other common kinds of rips include those beside prominent sand banks, and flash rips which can occur when a set of waves breaks and causes a temporary rip to appear and subside in a matter of minutes. While this last variety are the hardest to see or predict, the others offer visual clues such as; areas where waves are not breaking (on a beach with surf), mottled texture on the water surface or visible movement of water out to sea.
3) Know How to Escape a Rip
The golden rule is not to swim/paddle directly against a rip. Many rips are stronger than the average swimmer or surfer so paddling against them is energy sapping and ultimately futile. Instead try to work out the direction that the current is moving in and paddle/swim perpendicular to it, thus escaping the rip and being able to return to the beach. If you've no energy then remain calm and let the rip take you, they rarely last longer than 100m and will often just carry you to a different part of the beach where you can make your way to shore. While the most important thing is to remain calm at all times, my hot tip for not getting caught in a rip is to keep your feet on the ground or swim well within your depth, you're far less likely to get swept away with your feet in the sand!
4) Float to live
Since 2017 'Float to live' has been one of the RNLI's leading campaigns aimed at preventing loss of life at sea. Its aim is simple and effective and is summed up on their website in a few key stages; If you find yourself in trouble in the water, you can help yourself get back to safety by learning to float. Floating minimises your risk of gasping uncontrollably and breathing in water, which can quickly lead to drowning.
- First, keep calm and try not to panic. Your instinct will be to swim hard – don’t.
- Lean back, extending your arms and legs, to keep your mouth and nose out of the water and your airway clear.
- If you need to, gently move your arms and legs in a sculling motion to help you float.
- Float until you can control your breathing. Do this for 60-90 seconds or until you feel calm.
- Only now can you think about the next steps. If you can, swim to safety. If someone is nearby, raise a hand and call for help.
5) Respect the water
While it is tempting to label each of these points as the most important, I think this is most deserving of that mantle. A campaign which originated from the RNLI but which has been adopted by the National Water Safety Forum – a nationwide network of organisations working to prevent drowning – to unify water safety messaging, I regard respecting the water as absolutely vital in keeping people safe. You're reading this through the Finisterre Broadcast and may well be more ocean-literate than the average summer beach goer, but even the most competent water-person can find themselves in trouble. If you're a beginner or intermediate surfer, take time to properly analyse conditions... a) before you leave the house and b) before you put your wetsuit on. There is absolutely no shame in realising a spot is beyond your level and seeking a bit of shelter. If you're not at a lifeguarded beach and in any sort of doubt, trust your instinct and leave it for another day. The sea is a force of immense power and mystery, as land-dwelling humans we have become accustomed to bending the elements to our will, this domineering attitude ends as soon as we step into the water... it demands our respect.
As a final note, I urge you to respect not just the water but the environment as a whole. If you're heading to the beach, pick up any litter that you find and take your own litter back home with you. Stay away from fenced off dunes and precarious cliffs. If you respect the water and respect the environment when visiting the coast this year you'll stay safe, enjoy yourself and benefit from the wondrous positivity that the sea can provide.