The deaths by drowning this summer have highlighted the risks of swimming in open sea. The death this week of a woman who drowned when wading into the sea to save her young sons on a Cornish beach is the latest in a summer that has been punctuated by drownings, at home and abroad. Twelve British people, seven of them children, have drowned in the past month alone. It is too early to say whether they have been more numerous than usual, and different types of incidents are being conflated, but what is certain is that the rip current that appears to have caused the tragic accident in Cornwall should sound the alarm to all of us who blithely enter the sea unaware of its dangers. A rip current occurs where water receding from a beach finds a channel through which it can make a more rapid exit. Water rushes through that channel at speeds of up to 8ft per second, too fast for even the most adept swimmer to combat. Some rip currents, called “topographically controlled rips” and shaped by headlands or groynes, are permanent features. Potentially more dangerous are rips that occur on open beaches when water cuts a channel in a sandbar. Their unpredictability can be deadly.
“Rips will move, and what may be a perfectly safe place one day will not be safe the next day,” says Peter Dawes, head of lifeguards at the Royal National Lifeboat Institution. He says you can sometimes see a rip from an elevated position overlooking a beach – the absence of waves breaking is one sign; white water on either side of a current another – but that in choppy conditions they are hard even for experts to spot.
If you are caught by a rip current and there is no lifeguard on the beach, don’t panic and don’t try to swim against it. Swim laterally at first to get out of the rip, which is likely to be fairly narrow. Once you are out of the current, then swim for the shore. If you are not a strong swimmer or if you find you are making no progress, tread water and try to attract attention.
But why risk it? Dawes says the key is prevention. Only swim on beaches with lifeguards (fewer in number now the school holidays are over); quiz them about prevailing conditions; only swim between the safety flags; never swim alone; and don’t let youngsters go in by themselves, even in shallow water. As he points out, we may be on an unfamiliar stretch of coast engaging in a once-a-year activity, so it’s absurd not to take precautions. Go to the Guardian website…