10 Ways to Stay Safe When Swimming at the Beach

rnli lifeguards
Photo: RNLI / Nathan Williams

 As the summer temperatures begin to soar, thousands of families will be heading for the beach to go swimming in the sea over the coming months.

But sea swimming poses a completely different set of dangers to those at the pool, so an understanding of rip currents, tides and waves is vital when it comes to beach safety.

More than 100 people died at the UK coast in 2017, and 20% of these deaths were a result of swimming, jumping in and general leisure activities in the water.

Whether you're an adult planning to do some open water swimming, or a parent taking your children for some fun in the sea, here are 10 essential tips for staying safe at the beach.


1) Visit a lifeguarded beach

Visiting a beach with lifeguards will give you peace of mind that help will quickly be at hand if you or your child gets into difficulty.

RNLI lifeguards will constantly monitor sea conditions and fly the relevant warning flags to give visitors the most up-to-date safety information. They are also strong, fit and fully trained in lifesaving and first aid.

You can use the RNLI Find My Nearest Lifeguarded Beach search tool to discover local beaches near you which have lifeguard cover.


2) Understand the flags

The flags flying on the beach will give you vital information about where is safe to swim in the water.

Red and yellow flags will mark the areas where it is safe for you to swim or use inflatables. These areas will be covered by lifeguards.

A black and white chequered flag indicates that the conditions are only safe for surfboards, stand-up paddleboards, kayaks and other similar craft. Do not swim here.

A red flag is a danger warning, and means that nobody should enter the water under any circumstances.

Also be aware of an orange windsock – this is flown to indicate offshore or strong wind conditions, so it is important never to use inflatables in this situation.

beach flag guide

3) Be careful with inflatables

Even if the orange windsock is not flying, it is important to be aware of the hazards inflatable blow-up toys and airbeds can pose.

Ideally they are made for use in the pool and not the sea, where they can easily be swept out in the wrong conditions.

Make sure you or your child only uses inflatables between the red and yellow flags, close to the shore, and do as the lifeguards say if they instruct you otherwise.

Children should always be closely supervised, and it is good practice never to take inflatables into the water when the waves are big.


4) Understand rip currents

Rip currents aren't always easy to spot, and even more experienced sea swimmers can be caught out by them.

Look out for a channel of churning or choppy water on the sea's surface, or discoloured brown water as sand is stirred up from the sea bed. You may also spot sea debris floating out to sea.

The biggest mistake to make is to panic and attempt to swim directly back to shore. If you try to swim against a rip current, you'll tire very quickly and will be at increased risk of drowning.

Try to swim parallel to the shore until you've escaped the rip. Then you can make your way back safely to the beach. If you're not in too deep and can stand, it is better to wade rather than swim.

If you can't free yourself, raise your hand and shout for help.


5) Check the tide times

Tide times and heights can vary from day to day, so it's important to check tide conditions in advance to avoid getting caught out.

The depth of the sea water at the beach can change by up to 10m throughout the day as the tide comes in and goes out.

Many rescues occur when people visit coves or rocky outcrops and get cut off by the incoming tide. Checking the tides in advance can prevent this. If you are visiting a cove, check to see if it has steps or mainland access of its own.


6) Understand the waves

Waves are one of the most fun and exciting things about getting into the sea, but they can also be one of the most dangerous.

The most important thing is to know your limits, and don't risk getting into the water if it is too rough. It can only take 15cm of water to knock you off your feet.


7) Wear a wetsuit

The average sea temperature in the UK is 12°C, so cold water shock can cause a problem if you're not careful.

As well as increased resistance of blood flow, heart rate and blood pressure, a sudden cold shock also causes an involuntary gasp for breath which increases the chance of inhaling sea water into the lungs. Remember, it only takes around half a pint of water to enter the lungs for a grown person to start drowning.

Choose a wetsuit of appropriate thickness based on the amount of time you're planning on spending in the water, and what activity you plan on doing.


8) Don't enter the water to rescue someone else

Your gut instinct may be to jump in the water to rescue someone if you see them in trouble where no coastguards are present. Don't do this – the cold water shock will limit your ability to swim, and you are likely to get caught out by whatever danger has caused the initial problem.

Call the emergency services on 999 straight away, or ask someone else to if you are trying to help the person.

If there is a lifering or throwbag anywhere nearby, throw that to the victim. If not, try and find anything that will float. You can also remind them to kick their legs, and encourage them towards any safer or more shallow areas of water.

If the victim can get to within reaching distance, get down on your knees or lie down before attempting to pull them out. If you can't reach them, keep sight of the person until the emergency services arrive.


9) Remember 'floating' survival skill

The RNLI has launched a Float to Live campaign, which advises people who get into trouble in cold water to float on your back for a short time to regain control of your breathing.

Cold water shock expert Mike Tipton explains: "The instinctive human reaction on immersion in cold water is a potential killer as this can cause panic and thrashing around, increasing the chances of breathing in water. This also lets trapped air escape from clothing, reducing buoyancy.

"The best immediate course of action is to fight your instinct and float on your back. Once you’ve gained control of your breathing you can swim to safety, call for help, or continue to float until help arrives.

"Floating is not always something people are confident they can do, but most people can float; in fact recent practical trials with the RNLI suggest people find it easier than they expect.

"The recommended floating position to keep your airway clear is to lean back, extend your arms and legs, and keep movement to a minimum, as air trapped in your clothing will help you float.

"If needed, gently sculling your hands and feet can help you stay afloat; I’d advise everyone to practice in a controlled environment like a swimming pool."


10) Send your child on a Swim Safe course

Swim Safe was launched by Swim England and the RNLI in 2013, and offers free one-hour open water swimming lessons to children aged 7-14.

Children must be able to swim 25m to attend, and they will learn the importance of beach safety as well as receiving up to 30 minutes of specialist in-water tuition.

Qualified lifeguards and instructors will also be on hand to advise on which kids' swimming accessories to use when swimming outdoors, such as swimming hats, wetsuits and swimming aids. You can also find out upcoming Swim Safe courses near you.

Image courtesy of RNLI/Nathan Williams.