How to stay safe in the sea with nine tips from a seasoned lifeguard

Top tips from a seasoned lifeguard to help you stay out of danger this summer

Ravneet Ahluwalia
Tuesday 01 August 2017 11:33 BST
Lifeguard on the beach at Littlehampton, West Sussex
Lifeguard on the beach at Littlehampton, West Sussex

It’s the season for stripy towels, sandy feet and giant inflatable flamingos as we all try to beat the summer heat by heading for the beach. But, with a slew of tragic stories about holidaymakers getting in trouble in the water, what are the best ways to stay safe when in the sea?

We spoke to Ollie Shilston, 36, a lifeguard supervisor with the Royal National Lifeboat Institution who has worked 17 seasons in West Cornwall, with winter stints in Australia and South Africa. Here’s how he says you can hit the water safely.

Respect the water

“Be aware of your swimming ability, open water is different to the pool. It’s important to go to a lifeguarded beach and abide by the rules. Tides change every day and the coastline is so variable, so be sensible and listen to professional advice. Swim between the red and yellow flags – these have been set down each day by the lifeguards to designate the safe area to swim in. Do your research on the tides and do not swim alone, always take a friend.”

Beware of rip currents

“These are powerful narrow bands of water that flow quickly away from the sea and can drag you out very fast. Waves break on the sandbank and the water then drains away from the shallow sandy area into deeper water. It means areas that look calm and safe can be dangerous. People start in the shallows and they get dragged into the deeper areas by the rip current.”

Stay calm

“If you find yourself in trouble – for example if you have been dragged out by a rip current and can’t swim back – do not panic. A lot of people start fighting the waves to get themselves back to shore and end up getting very tired and distressed. The best thing to do is to stop, float in the water (on a body board or inflatable if you have one) and attract attention on shore so someone can come to you. If you can, try to float calmly across in front of the beach so people can see you. Do not waste energy trying to swim in.”

The red and yellow flags are set down each day to designate the safe area to swim in

Fight your instinct

“If you see someone in trouble, call the lifeguard – do not dive in to help. It’s an instinctive reaction to want to assist when you see someone in distress, but resist this urge and call for assistance. There are so many incidents where we’re saving two people from a dangerous situation as a result of this.”

Take care with inflatables

“Lilos, dinghies and other inflatables pop up in the water during the summer. If you want to take out an inflatable you must be aware of the wind. Any offshore wind (wind going from land to sea) can be dangerous, a breeze that feels light on shore can get stronger when you get in the sea and can carry you into dangerous territory. We ban all inflatables on beaches when the wind is in the wrong direction. Check the breeze on the back of your neck to see which way the wind is blowing before you head in.”

Wear a wetsuit

“Even though it’s been quite warm, the water is still only about 15 degrees in Cornwall. If you’re doing a day of swimming, body-boarding or surfing, I would advise wearing a wetsuit. Take time to acclimatise to the temperature of the water. If you go from a warm to a cold temperature very quickly, for example by jumping in, the body can go into a state known as cold water shock. This is almost like a panic attack where you frantically try to struggle against the cold. If you do experience this, try to roll onto your back as your airways will be nice and clear and you will float.”

Don’t drink and swim

“Drinking impairs your judgement and slows your reactions so we would always advise people not to swim if they have consumed alcohol. If I saw people drinking a considerable amount on the beach I would stop them getting into the sea. Alcohol in your bloodstream also means you get colder quicker as the blood vessels are closer to the skin, which can also be dangerous.”

Coastal walks can also be dangerous as many people are not aware of rising tides

Be aware if you’re by the sea

“Around half the people who drown in the UK never intended to go swimming. They were engaged in activities like angling on rocks, coastal walks or sailing, but were all dragged into the sea without expecting it. We’re asking fishermen to take buoyancy aids with them, for example, so they are prepared if a large wave carries them in. If you are exploring the coastline on foot, keep away from unstable ground, look out for safety signs and seek local advice on the tide.”

Watch out in lakes and rivers

“The biggest issue with lakes and rivers is that you do not know what’s beneath the surface. It looks flat and calm but you just don’t know how deep it is, or if there are actually currents or rocks beneath. Again, do your research on the site and never swim alone.”

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