This week two children disappeared from an unsupervised beach. Deborah Jackson asks for a safer seaside
It was a calm day on the pretty little West Wales beach. My husband kicked an inflatable football to our two-year-old son, who failed to meet it. The ball rolled slowly into the water and in a moment was bobbing out to sea, drawn swiftly by a current which defied the incoming waves.

Three minutes later, and the bright orange globe was a mere dot heading in the direction of Ireland. "Gone!" said baby Joe. "Ball gone!" And that was the last we saw of it.

The mysteries and dangers of our coastal waters are a force we barely comprehend and routinely ignore. This week's anxiety over Jodi and Tom Loughlin, missing from the beach at Holme-next-the-Sea in Norfolk, has focused our minds on the strong possibility that the six- and four-year- olds were snatched out to sea.

Jodi and Tom were last seen dressed in bathing costumes, running towards the water. It was a warm Sunday - the beach was packed with sunbathers, volley-ballers and sandcastle-builders. I have watched my oldest children, aged six and eight, run off in just this fashion on a dozen beaches this summer. Each time, I wondered how wise I was to let them dabble in the shallows without supervision. Each time, I told myself not to be overprotective.

Now I feel unnerved by British complacency about beach safety. We have completely failed to see the serious side of the Baywatch saga. Here we are, a poky little island surrounded by some of the world's most wretched waters, treating the sea as if it were a benign plaything.

We fret about road safety and lecture our children on the unpredicability of the car, but which of us packs a Sea Safety Code into the beach bag? "Go play in the waves!" we urge infants we would never dare leave alone in the bath. Sometimes, I think the sunny weather goes to our heads. Why else would we abandon caution in the name of holiday fun?

According to Nigel Jackson of the Royal Life- saving Society, most holidaymakers are heedless of seaside dangers. "A small child can be knocked over by the minutest of waves," he says. "We advise parents always to stay very close."

Our national recklessness has two main features: a dire lack of safety measures and an apathy about swimming lessons. On the first front, Nigel Jackson expresses the hope that "most people understand a red flag means danger," but agrees many do not bother to consult noticeboards or check the significance of flag colour codes. "We strongly advise people not to bathe on an unguarded beach," he says. Yet The Tidy Britain group says that out of 203 Seaside Award beaches, only 61 have any lifeguard cover at all. None is guarded out of season.

Never mind, Britons are quite happy to dip their toes in without a clue where the nearest lifebelt might be located. In Australia or Canada, where lifeguards are as plentiful as traffic wardens, such thoughtlessness might be regarded as criminal neglect.

As for education, the Royal Life-saving Society was instrumental in getting swimming on to the National Curriculum in 1994. Unfortunately, it is only compulsory for key stages one and two, and underfunding means many children receive at most a year's swimming lessons during their primary school years.

"By the time the school has organised 30 kids into the water, that leaves 20 minutes' swimming time - and when children are excited , only 10 minutes' concentration," says swimming instructor Steve William.

Steve is assistant manager at Bath Sports Centre. He teaches a programme of swimming courses for four-year-olds upwards and believes a year's worth of school classes is simply not enough to get most children swimming. "We get children of nine or 10 who have never been introduced to water and are terrified," he says. "It's of great concern to us."

"Although Sundays are busy in our pool, Saturdays are quiet. Adults may be taking more leisure time for themselves, but they aren't necessarily using it to take their children swimming. I would like to see swimming introduced in schools at a much earlier age - it's really too late by the time the child is 10."

Having reared another generation of feeble swimmers and failed to seek out adequate lifeguard protection, British parents are forced into their usual retreat of fear and confusion. Sea bathing may become yet another freedom we shall soon be denying our children. "My three kids wanted to go swimming today but I'm too scared to let them into the water," said one worried mother, interviewed at Holme- next-the-Sea after the disappearance of Jodi and Tom. "It's silly, but after what happened, it's very difficult to relax." It is silly. We ought not to relax, but to get out there on Saturday mornings with the arm bands and brave the chlorine. We should lobby for more lifeguards and better beach awareness. We must make it safe to go back in the water.