As soon as the weather warms up, hot and sticky we tend to flock to lakes, rivers and the sea to cool off – and every year people lose their lives because they forget how important it is to stay safe in open water.
“In hot weather, it’s understandable that people want to cool off by taking a dip, but open water has dangerous, invisible hazards,” warns Lee Heard, charity director for the Royal Life Saving Society UK (RLSS). “Hazards like strong currents, debris and pollutants can always be present but perhaps the biggest risk is cold water shock.”
Although more than 400 people accidentally drown in the UK and Ireland every year – and many more suffer life-changing injuries after getting into difficulties in open water – Heard stresses that most accidental drownings happen inland, in rivers, quarries, reservoirs and canals, rather than in the sea…
Water safety do’s and don’ts
Here are 10 dos and don’ts for water safety this summer…
1. DON’T forget the water temperature could be dangerous
Heard warns that one of the biggest risks of swimming in open water is cold water shock. “That’s when the water is so much colder than the hot air around you that your body goes into a state of shock, making it hard to breathe. Panic sets in, you start to take in water and it becomes increasingly difficult to self-rescue,” he explains.
2. DO stay together
RLSS UK advises people to stay with friends or family if they go into the water – if you get into difficulty you’ve got much more chance of getting help or being rescued.
3. DO check the depth of the water
RLSS UK warns the depth of any water can change suddenly and is unpredictable. Check the depth if you can and ask others about it, and always be aware that it could get deeper suddenly if, for example, a river bed drops away.
4. DO remember you can’t see what’s under the water
There could be objects and hazards under the water that you can’t see, warns RLSS UK, ranging from sharp objects you could cut yourself on, to weeds that you could get dangerously tangled in.
5. DON’T forget the current
A river may look still on the surface, but beneath the water, there could be a strong current that could be dangerous for even the strongest swimmer. Tips for gauging if there’s a strong current include looking at how hard the water runs over any rocks sticking out of it, or putting a long stick into the water and feeling how strong the water resistance is. But remember, the current may be much stronger deeper into the water where you can’t reach, so the safest option is to err on the side of caution and not go in.
If there’s a rip current in the sea, RLSS UK says anyone who gets into difficulties should call for help and shouldn’t swim against the current – swimming parallel to the shore can help ensure you’re swimming out of and not back into the current. Once you’re out of it, swim towards the shore, being careful to avoid being drawn back in by feeder currents.
6. DO remember to float
If you get into trouble, RLSS UK advises you to stay calm, float on your back, and call for help. Onlookers should throw something that floats to anyone who’s struggling in the water.
7. DO remember you’re more at risk if there’s no safety equipment
While some beaches and lakes may have safety equipment, such as lifebelts and buoys or even lifeguards, most rivers and some lakes and canals don’t have any safety equipment, which means entering the water is a lot more dangerous if you get into difficulty.
8. DON’T dive in
Don’t swim near or dive from rocks, piers, breakwater and coral, says RLSS UK. It’s impossible to know what’s under the water or it’s depth, and that can be very dangerous.
9. DO understand British beach flag signs
Red means don’t go into the water. Red half over yellow means it’s a lifeguarded area, and you should swim between the flags. An orange windsock shows the direction of the wind. If the wind is blowing out to sea, don’t go into the water on an inflatable (although the RLSS UK stresses their advice is never to go into the sea on an inflatable).
10. DO ask for advice
RLSS UK says if you’re visiting the coast it’s a good idea to ask for advice about when it’s safe to go in the water from lifeguards, tourist information offices, local coastguard stations, or even local fishermen.
It’s also Drowning Prevention Week from June 19-26, when plenty more free, digital resources will be available from the RLSS UK to help people understand water risks.