Information courtesy of RNLI
The majority of Lifeguard incidents involve rip currents. They are a major cause of accidental drowning on beaches all across the world.
Rips are strong currents running out to sea, which can quickly drag people and debris away from the shallows of the shoreline and out to deeper water.
They tend to flow at 1–2mph but can reach 4–5mph, which is faster than an Olympic swimmer.
Rips are especially powerful in larger surf, but never underestimate the power of any water. They are also found around river mouths, estuaries and man-made structures like piers and groynes.
How to spot and avoid a rip current
Rip currents can be difficult to spot, but are sometimes identified by a channel of churning, choppy water on the sea’s surface.
Even the most experienced beachgoers can be caught out by rips, so don’t be afraid to ask lifeguards for advice. They will show you how you can identify and avoid rips.
If you do find yourself caught in a rip:
– Don’t try to swim against it or you’ll get exhausted.
– If you can stand, wade don’t swim.
– If you can, swim parallel to the shore until free of the rip and then head for shore.
– Always raise your hand and shout for help.
Swimming and other watersports aren’t the only ways that people get into trouble at the beach. Getting cut off by the tide also contributes to a significant number of coastal rescues every year.
Because tide times and heights vary throughout the month, a beach that was clear yesterday at 5pm might be completely covered in sea at the same time today.
Tides have a reputation for being unpredictable, but really they follow a timetable more reliable than most trains! There are two different types: spring and neap.
Spring tides have greater depth range between high and low water, so at high tide the water comes in further up the beach.
Neap tides have less variation, so at high tide the water won’t come in as far.
Check the tide conditions and your surroundings
The UK and Ireland have some of the biggest tidal ranges in the world.
To avoid getting cut off by the tide:
- Before you head out, make sure it’s safe. Check the tide tables.
- While you’re out, be aware of your surroundings and the tide’s direction.
A beach can seem like a vast playground but the tide can come in surprisingly quickly.
As the tide moves up and down the beach, the depth of the water changes throughout the day, sometimes by as much as 10 metres.
As the tide comes in, simply walking further up the beach and away to safety might not be an option.
If you’ve walked round to another cove at low tide, or walked around an outcrop of rocks, the water can soon block your way back as the tide turns. If the cove you’re in doesn’t have steps or access of its own, you could be in trouble.
Waves are great fun, but they can be dangerous. Understanding how they work will keep you safer.
Powerful breaking waves have the potential to bring out the big kid in all of us. They are one of the most exciting and impressive features of our UK and Irish coastlines and they are the primary force shaping coastal change.
It’s important for anyone who visits the coast to know the basics about waves so that they can keep themselves and others safe.
Waves are formed by friction when the wind blows across the surface of the sea, causing a swell as water particles rotate and move forwards. They can also be caused by seismic activity.
The movement of a wave up the beach is known as the swash, its movement down the beach is known as the backwash. Depending on which is stronger, waves can be either constructive or destructive.
Size and power
The size and power of a wave is influenced by three main factors:
- how strong the wind is
- how long it has been blowing
- how far the wave has travelled (known as the fetch).
How steeply a beach slopes or shelves and the topography of the sea bed near the beach will also affect the size and type of wave.
Waves move in sets and the ‘seventh wave’ – the bigger wave in the middle of a set – often comes further up the beach. That it always happens on the seventh wave is a myth, but sometimes it does!
Spilling waves are softer and more consistent waves that break gradually as they approach the shore. They are ideal for beginner board riders. Start off in the shallow white water before you progress to deeper water and unbroken waves.
Dumping waves break powerfully in shallow water and should be avoided. They most commonly occur at low tide and break quickly with a lot of force making them dangerous for beginners.
When a wave breaks it loses some of its power and momentum. Watch out for surging waves – they don’t break, so they can knock you off of your feet more easily and drag you into deeper water.
Our four top tips
1. Wave dodging
Wave dodging is for sunny, calm days and gentle waves!
It may seem fun to wait for a wave to sweep up the beach or along a harbour wall, but only 15cm of water can knock you off your feet. Bear this in mind when the weather is stormy or conditions are rough.
And don’t be caught out by the ‘seventh wave’. Remember that the wave in the middle of a set is often bigger and can reach further up the beach or along the promenade.
Enjoy the power of the water from a safe and respectful distance – preferably from a window seat in a cafe with a warm cup of tea!
2. Get to know rips
Rips are strong currents running out to sea between waves, which can quickly drag people and debris away out to deeper water.
They are especially powerful in larger surf, but never underestimate the power of any water. See section above on rips.
3. Know your limits
The right kinds of waves offer a lot of fun, but always stay mindful of your own limits – not just physically but in experience.
Rough and choppy water, strong currents (such as those that can occur during bad weather and spring tides) and dumping waves inspire thoughts of adventure, but they can quickly sap even the most experienced sea users of energy.
If the water is rough, don’t go in. If you feel conditions change while in the water, err on the side of caution and get out until they are calm enough to go in again.
4. Always plan ahead
- Plan your trips to the beach beyond packed lunches and paddle boards.
- Check tide times and local knowledge to make sure it’s safe to be out.
- When the sea conditions are rough, enjoy the waves from a respectful distance.
Cold water shock
The effect on the body of entering water 15°C and below is often underestimated. This shock can be the precursor to drowning.
What’s the risk?
Anything below 15°C is defined as cold water and can seriously affect your breathing and movement, so the risk is significant most of the year.
Average UK and Ireland sea temperatures are just 12°C.
Cold water shock causes the blood vessels in the skin to close, which increases the resistance of blood flow. Heart rate is also increased. As a result the heart has to work harder and your blood pressure goes up. Cold water shock can therefore cause heart attacks, even in the relatively young and healthy.
The sudden cooling of the skin by cold water also causes an involuntary gasp for breath. Breathing rates can change uncontrollably, sometimes increasing as much as tenfold. All these responses contribute to a feeling of panic, increasing the chance of inhaling water directly into the lungs.
This can all happen very quickly: it only takes half a pint of sea water to enter the lungs for a fully grown man to start drowning. You could die if you don’t get medical care immediately.
How can you minimise the risk?
If you enter the water unexpectedly:
- Take a minute. The initial effects of cold water pass in less than a minute so don’t try to swim straight away.
- Relax and float on your back to catch your breath. Try to get hold of something that will help you float.
- Keep calm then call for help or swim for safety if you’re able.
If you’re planning on enjoying the water:
- Check conditions – including water temperature – before heading to the coast. Visit magicseaweed.com for full surf reports in the UK and Ireland.
- Wear a wetsuit of appropriate thickness for the amount of time you plan to spend in the water and the type of activity you’re doing, if entering.
- Wear a flotation device. It greatly increases your chances of making it through the initial shock. See our guidance on lifejackets and buoyancy aids (PDF 3.3MB).
Our seas and rivers are cold enough to leave you helpless in seconds. Treat water with respect, not everyone can be saved.
Learn more about cold water shock and see its effects in our Magazine article:
Children are safest when supervised.
As soon as you get to the beach, agree a meeting point in case of separation.