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Dublin: 16°C Friday 17 September 2021
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Opinion: We need to now prioritise water safety in Ireland as we did road safety

Roger Sweeney of Water Safety Ireland says we must educate people on the importance of learning to swim and best ways to interact with water.

Roger Sweeney

Updated Jul 23rd 2021, 3:00 PM

THIS WEEK HAS brought a series of horrific tragedies in Irish waters throughout the country, leaving many families and communities in grief.

As the temperatures soared, people have understandably flocked to waterways to cool down and enjoy themselves. In the past 18 months during Covid-19, sea swimming has also grown in popularity. Swimming in nature, whether sea or freshwater, will always bring danger. Drowning is a global killer that takes an average of 115 lives in Ireland every year.

The United Nations has declared this Sunday 25 July World Drowning Prevention Day. It is part of the first-ever UN Resolution on drowning prevention, an initiative of Ireland and Bangladesh that aims to address the issue of drowning.

The current hot spell has increased that drowning risk. Water Safety Ireland is asking the public to mark World Drowning Prevention Day by making the following water safety issues part of your conversation with loved ones before you even leave home.

Drownings by nature are deceptively quiet occurrences. There isn’t the splashing, shouting, waving for help that we typically see on television screens. Many people believe that a person in difficulty will make it obvious that they are drowning but this is not the case. This can lull family and friends into a false sense of security. People have drowned beside others who were completely unaware of the quiet tragic scenario unfolding beside them.

Freshwater is different

The current high temperatures have seen thousands of people flock to our coastline but the risk of drowning is greater at our inland waterways. Around 40,000 people live fewer than 100 metres from the coast and two million people live within 5km of the coast, however, most drownings occur inland (62%), at rivers, lakes, canals, quarries, reservoirs and bogs.

Freshwater can be cooler than coastal beaches and will cool the skin faster. This gradual cooling of the muscles makes swimming more difficult or even impossible.

River currents can also take you away from the place where you safely entered the water to a place beyond your depth where it can be impossible to get out. Lakes and rivers can have very deep holes and uneven riverbeds that are impossible to see and weeds growing under the surface can lead to entanglement.

Freshwater does not have the buoyancy of seawater which can make it more difficult to float and swim. Swimming in cooler freshwater may give the feeling of warmth and the body may produce more heat when swimming but it is also more quickly lost from the arm and leg muscles. Children cool much faster than adults because they have less body fat.

Most drownings are male in their home county

In Ireland, we have over 3,000km of coastline but we also have over 12,000 lakes of all sizes covering an area of 1,200 square kilometres and our five longest rivers measure over 1,000kms in length. These waters are an amazing resource yet an average of 115 people lost their lives to drowning in them every year over the last decade. Those 10 drownings per month are a significant public health issue.

The majority of drowning victims are male (80%). People are most likely to drown within their home county (80%). Last year we had 76 drownings, the lowest since 1936. This is significantly lower than the previous year, 2019, when 105 people drowned.

Warm weather increases the drowning risk as people can be lulled into a false sense of security by the picture-postcard scenes at waterways they visit. The rush to get into the water can lead to an unfolding scenario and serious incidents, all of which can be avoided.

Why do people drown in Ireland?

People tend to drown for two reasons. They either fall in unexpectedly and fall victim to the effects of cold shock and hypothermia or they go in, on and under the water voluntarily but overestimate their own ability and underestimate the risk.

Alcohol is a contributory factor in one-third of drownings. It may sometimes instil a sense of bravado which can lead to risky behaviour. Compounding this is the fact that alcohol affects your sense of speed, direction and distance, all essential when determining your own safety in waters that may have fast underwater currents, hidden hazards and which may be colder under the surface.

Cooler water can lead to the cooling of the muscles, making it more difficult or indeed impossible to swim to safety. That said, “Cold Shock” the term used to describe the body’s physiological response to sudden immersion in colder water is likely to cause death before hypothermia even begins to set in.

Such statistics reinforce the importance of learning how to stay safe in, on and around water yet a survey we conducted of 1,000 households found that over half of respondents did not possess an ability to swim or are uncomfortable doing so. The same survey found that one-third of respondents did not wear a lifejacket the last time that they took part in a water-based activity and two-thirds of parents feel that their children’s knowledge of water safety is low.

This clearly points to an ever-present need for the skills, attitudes and behaviours of adults and children to change. We need a cultural shift in our attitudes to water safety, just as we saw with road safety and the wearing of seatbelts for example.

Children are particularly at risk as they rely on constant uninterrupted supervision. Tragically, 30 children aged 14 and under managed to escape a watchful eye and drowned at waterways nationwide over 10 years. That’s a classroom of children lost to tragic avoidable drowning. Constant, uninterrupted supervision is absolutely essential. Teach your primary school children the resources e have here: www.teachpaws.ie and teach pre-school and Early Learning Centre aged children theses resources: www.holdhands.ie.

Rip currents

Rip currents can occur at any surf beach with breaking waves. As waves travel from deep to shallow water, they will break near the shoreline. When waves break strongly in some locations and weakly in others, this can cause circulation cells which are seen as rip currents: narrow, fast-moving belts of water travelling offshore.

Rip currents are the leading surf hazard for all beachgoers. They are particularly dangerous for weak or non-swimmers but strong swimmers can easily get overwhelmed too.

Rip current speeds are typically 1-2 Kmph. However, speeds as high as 8 Kmph have been measured. Thus, rip currents can sweep even the strongest swimmer out to sea. Rip currents can be found on many surf beaches every day. Under most tide and sea conditions the speeds are relatively slow.

However, under certain wave, tide, and beach profile conditions the speeds can quickly increase to become dangerous to anyone entering the surf. The strength and speed of a rip current will likely increase as wave height and wave period increase. They are most likely to be dangerous during high surf conditions as the wave height and wave period increase.

Where rip currents form

Rip currents most typically form at low spots or breaks in sandbars, and also near structures such as groins, jetties and piers. Rip currents can be very narrow or extend in widths to hundreds of yards.

The seaward pull of rip currents varies: sometimes the rip current ends just beyond the line of breaking waves, but sometimes rip currents continue to push hundreds of yards offshore.

A rip current is a horizontal current. Rip currents do not pull people under the water – they pull people away from shore. Drowning deaths occur when people pulled offshore are unable to keep themselves afloat and swim to shore. This may be due to any combination of fear, panic, exhaustion, or lack of swimming skills. In some regions rip currents are referred to by other, incorrect terms such as rip tides and undertow.

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How to identify and survive rip currents:

  • A channel of churning, choppy water
  • An area having a notable difference in the water colour
  • A line of foam, seaweed, or debris moving steadily seaward
  • A break in the incoming wave pattern
  • None, one, or more of the above clues may indicate the presence of rip currents
  • Rip currents are often not readily or easily identifiable to the average beachgoer
  • For your safety, be aware of this major surf zone hazard. Polarised sunglasses make it easier to see the rip current clues provided above
  • If caught in a rip current, 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
  • Throw the rip current victim something that floats and yell instructions on how to escape
  • Remember, many people drown while trying to save someone else from a rip current.

Getting to a swimming spot

People should make every effort to swim at a Lifeguarded waterway. They are all listed at www.watersafety.ie/lifeguards. Even so, people still overestimate their own abilities, and Lifeguards end up rescuing hundreds of people every year.

Some parents even treat Lifeguards as babysitters. Every year, hundreds of children are found by Lifeguards, lost and unaccompanied beside the water. Lifeguards are trained to undertake a rescue but primarily to spot potential dangers and prevent an emergency scenario unfolding. They are not babysitters.

Ease yourself in when you arrive and splash your body so that you acclimatise to the cooler water. We’ve noticed a behaviour during Covid-19 whereby people are trying to find more secluded spots to swim but they may be dangerous and have hidden hazards and dangerous currents so people should always swim at a place that is traditionally known as being safe, with a ringbuoy present.

Never use inflatable toys in open water as they can be floating killers – even the slightest breeze can take it away from shore.

World Drowning Prevention Day

World Drowning Prevention Day is this Sunday 25 July. Drowning is a serious public health issue in Ireland and needs to be part of a wider national conversation, one that begins at home before arriving at a waterway.

In the long term, we need a cultural shift that builds a safety consciousness around water, just as we saw with road safety. In the short term, instead of instilling an unhealthy fear of water, we should instead be teaching a healthy respect for our wonderful aquatic environments and encourage everyone to learn how to enjoy water-based activities safely.

Top water safety tips – read them, print them, remember them:

  • Swim within your depth and stay within your depth. Many people are swimming for the first time this year and have not had swimming classes for more than 15 months
  • Swim at a Lifeguarded waterway, listed at www.watersafety.ie/lifeguards. Otherwise swim in areas that are known locally as safe and where there are ring buoys present for rescues
  • Make sure that the water’s edge is shallow shelving so that you can safely enter and exit
  • The air temperature is warm but open water is cooler – avoid extended stays in the water as your muscles will cool, making swimming more difficult
  • Never use inflatable toys in open water as a gentle breeze can quickly bring a person away from shore
  • Always supervise children closely and never leave them alone at garden paddling pools
  • Wear a lifejacket when on or near water. See guidelines here
  • Alcohol is a factor in one-third of drownings. Do not mix it with water activities
  • If you see someone in difficulty, these simple steps may save a life:
    A. Shout to the casualty and encourage them to shore. This may orientate them just enough.
    B. Reach out with a long object such as a branch or a piece of clothing but do not enter the water yourself.
    C. Throw a ring buoy or any floating object and call 112 for the Coast Guard.

Screen Shot 2021-07-23 at 09.14.03 Sienna Halligan from Shankill on Lettergesh Beach in Connemara. Source: Water Safety Ireland

Water Safety Ireland has 100 limited edition WSI Swim Caps up for grabs for people who upload face painted stripes that they are ging blue for World Drowning Prevention Day. Can be uploaded to the links at www.worlddrowningpreventionday.ie.

Roger Sweeney is the Deputy CEO and Marketing Manager for Water Safety Ireland which is a statutory body, a voluntary organisation with over 5,000 members nationwide and a registered charity established to promote drowning prevention water safety initiatives in Ireland. He also sits on the Marine Safety Communications Working Group, made up of organisations that represent statutory bodies, search & rescue and other users of our aquatic environments. 

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Roger Sweeney

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