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Dublin: 12 °C Friday 24 May, 2019
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An average of 137 people drown in Ireland each year - how to protect yourself

An expert from Irish Water Safety has some practical tips for keeping all the family safe at the beach.

Lifeguards on Garrettstown Beach in Cork.
Lifeguards on Garrettstown Beach in Cork.
Image: John Allen/Cork Water Safety

WILL YOU BE visiting the beach this summer? There are simple steps you can take to ensure the safety of you and yours.

Tragically, an average of 137 people drown each year in Ireland. We at Irish Water Safety feel that this is simply unacceptable considering that most fatalities are avoidable. One drowning is one too many.

Dangers at the beach

The first step you can take towards having a safer experience at the beach is to familiarise yourself with the dangers and hazards that can be present on any beach around Ireland.

Rip currents

Rip currents are the leading surf hazard for all beachgoers, particularly for weak or non-swimmers. Rip currents have been measured up to speeds as high as 8 km/h, so they can sweep even the strongest swimmer out to sea. They most typically form at low spots or breaks in sandbars, and also near structures such as groynes, jetties and piers. Rip currents can be very narrow or extend in widths to hundreds of yards.

A rip current can be identified by a channel of churning, choppy water; an area having a notable difference in water colour; a line of foam, seaweed, or debris moving steadily seaward; or a break in the incoming wave pattern.

Source: Cork Water Safety

  • If you are unable to avoid a rip current and find yourself being swept out from the shore, it is important to remain calm to conserve energy and think clearly.
  • Don’t fight the current. Swim out of the current in a direction following the shoreline. When out of the current, swim towards shore.
  • If you are unable to swim out of the rip current, float or calmly tread water. When out of the current, swim towards shore.
  • If you are still unable to reach shore, draw attention to yourself: face the shore, wave your arms, and yell for help.
  • If you see someone in trouble, get help from a lifeguard. If a lifeguard is not available, have someone call 999 or 112. You can find more information and diagrams at the Cork County Council Beach Lifeguard Facebook page.

General hazards

Other general hazards that can be present at a beach include channels or rivers that are fast-moving bodies of water that can also pull you out of your depth and away from shore. The shifting sands and uneven ground of sand dunes can also pose a threat to people’s safety. There have been too many instances of sand dunes collapsing on top of a beachgoer digging into them, and burying the person.

Shutterstock-145877927 Sand dunes - look harmless enough but there have been too many instances of them collapsing on a beachgoer digging into them. Source: Shutterstock

Manmade hazards can be found on many beaches. Submerged groynes, or rocks for that matter, can injure swimmers and surfers alike, if they unknowingly collide with these concrete and/or wooden walls.

We share our waters and beaches with wildlife and sometimes these can pose a threat to health of those travelling to the beach this summer. Jellyfish are relatively harmless. However, like allergies, a small amount people could possibly suffer anaphylactic shock if they are stung. If you suffer an injury or are involved in an emergency situation on a beach patrolled by lifeguards, inform them as soon as possible as they can provide first aid care and/or contact the emergency services.

If a lifeguard is not available, have someone call 999 or 112.

Dangerous behaviours

The second step to a safer experience at the beach is having a positive and respectful attitude towards water safety. A beach, and its surrounding waters, can be dangerous by nature. However, there are also dangerous behaviours that can put beach goers at risk. Activities such as rock climbing, and pier or cliff jumping can also have tragic consequences, especially if you don’t know the depth of the water.

Man-made structures, such as walls and pipes, can prove very hazardous to the wellbeing of beach goers. A large number of first aid incidents are the result of children running along these pipes. A combination of sea water and seaweed makes these structures very slippery.

Alcohol

The consumption of alcohol or being intoxicated at the beach is not only illegal but also highly irresponsible. On average, a third of drowning victims had consumed alcohol. Your body gets rid of one standard of drink per hour. Nothing speeds this up. Time is the only cure. Never ever drink and dive or swim or sail.

Inflatables

As we are in the middle of the June Bank holiday weekend, water safety should be prioritised by anyone going to the beach or coast when pursuing water-based or waterside activities to avoid the dangers of cold shock, hypothermia and drowning.

Shutterstock-265997576 Inflatables are lots of fun - but they can carry a person away from shore, and into danger. Source: Shutterstock

A full moon on Tuesday, 2 June will create higher risks due to strong tides. Floating toys and inflatables eg blow-up beds, dinghys, and rings, should not be used in open water as they pose a great risk of being carried out to sea due to stronger currents or strong offshore winds.

Unsupervised children

Constant uninterrupted supervision of children is the safest way to avoid tragedy. Lifeguards are not babysitters. To help prevent your child from getting lost there are a couple extra steps you can take:

Get your child to wear recognisable clothing and have him or her wear something with your contact details on it, for example, a wristband.

Before you go to the beach, agree a meeting place in case of separation.

Explain to your child that they should never wander off or go swimming on their own, and that if they do get separated/lost go to the agreed meeting place or tell a lifeguard.

If your child does go missing, calmly check your surrounding area, ensure any other children remain monitored, contact the lifeguards immediately, or in their absence, the gardai and keep them informed.

Finally, let all searchers know when the child is found.

Not following the instructions of lifeguards

Red Flag on Front Strand Youghal See this? It means 'No Swimming!' Heed it. Source: Cork Water Safety

Every year rescues have to be made or first aid has to be provided because someone didn’t follow the instructions of a beach lifeguard or a warning sign. Beach lifeguards practice a preventative approach to water safety and lifesaving around Ireland. This means that they are not trying to stop you from having fun but aim to stop a negative situation before it even happens.

Lifeguards are the first line of defence for the safety of people on beaches. If you are visiting a beach for the first time or have any question, please do not hesitate to ask a lifeguard. Education is becoming the primary tool in preventing drownings.

Time and dates of duty of beach lifeguards

Beach Lifeguards across the country will be resuming their duties this summer for the bathing season. In Cork for example, lifeguards will be on duty from 10.30am until 7pm.

They will be patrolling on weekends only in June, full time during July and August, and the first two weekends for the month of September. A list of the lifeguarded waterways can be found at this link.

Beach lifeguard flag system

Do you know what the flags on the beach mean? As the summer bathing season draws near wise up to water safety by familiarising yourself with the Beach Lifeguard Flag System.

Lifeguards raising the flag that indicates they are on duty and it is a safe spot to swim. Source: Cork Water Safety

  • A (large) Red-over-Yellow Flag above or near the Lifeguard station means that it is safe to swim and Lifeguards are on duty.
  • A Red Flag means ”Danger! No Swimming”.
  • Two Red-over-Yellow flags on the beach indicate the swimming zone ie, the safest place to swim. The most important message beach lifeguards want to convey to the public is to swim between these flags, and parallel to the shore.

Education and social media

Last year, beach lifeguards in Co Cork began to use social media to promote safety on, in or near water. The Cork County Council Beach Lifeguard Facebook page and Twitter have proven to be a very effective way at providing live information to a wider audience about health and safety on the county’s beautiful beaches.

This is because it utilises the two best tools at our disposable in this information era ie, the internet and social media. The aim is to help people make a more informed choice about which beach they visit on what day, resulting in a safer and more positive beach experience for all.

Learn to swim

Would you like to make the most of your time at the beach this summer? Why not sign up for a Swim & Safety course? You can take proactive steps to avoid and survive the dangers of the water at the beach by learning how to swim or by improving your skills.

  • County branches of Irish Water Safety will be organising Swim & Safety courses throughout the summer – you can find information about these courses on their website here.
  • For more information on water safety in Ireland, visit iws.ie
  • Report missing ring buoys here.

Graham Kerr is PRO of Cork Water Safety (the Cork branch of Irish Water Safety). 

The programme of summer weeks in Cork will take place across the county, from Youghal in the east to Urhan in the west. To find out more information and secure a place on one of these courses, see here

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About the author:

Graham Kerr

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