STORMFAX® Guide to Safe Ocean Swimming
Whether your favorite activity is swimming, body surfing, rafting, kayaking or boogie boarding, here are the major causes of accidents and ways you can avoid injury. (Download/Print)
Dangerous Surf Conditions
- Lateral Currents
- Lateral (also known as "littoral") currents flow parallel to the beach. They range in speed from fast-flowing to subtle movement. These currents pose little threat to the average swimmer, but weaker swimmers can be pulled into rip currents and heavy surf simply by the force of lateral currents.
- Rip Currents
- Rip currents are the major cause of surf accidents. They are characterized by a strong flow of water rushing back out to sea. Rip currents occur when large amounts of water accumulate near shore due to natural wave action. Since water seeks its own level, the broken waves take the path of least resistance. This powerful flow of water can pull even strong swimmers into deep water. Generally, the size and strength of the rip currents are in proportion to the size and frequency of the wave action - the larger the waves, the stronger the rip currents. Depending on lateral currents, rip currents can be fixed at one location or can occur at more than one point along the beach. Large rip currents can be recognized by the sandy discoloration of the water.
- Backwash usually occurs with high tides on beaches that rise sharply away from the water's edge. Backwash occurs when the water remaining on the beach returns forcefully to the surf beneath later incoming waves. It is particularly dangerous for small children playing near the water's edge. Even in the short distance between breaking waves and deep water, backwash is powerful enough to knock people off their feet.
- Shore Break
- Shore break can occur at high tide when heavy surf conditions cause large waves to break on the beach with little or no water under them. Shore break can be particularly dangerous to a swimmer who is caught in such a wave because the wave can slam the swimmer on the beach, causing injury. Shore break is the most frequent cause of serious back, neck and shoulder injuries at the beach. Avoid body surfing during shore break conditions.
Swimming Safety Advice
Check with the lifeguard on surf conditions before swimming. If lifeguards give you directions or instructions from the stand, obey them.
Never swim alone - use the buddy system.
Don't overestimate your swimming ability, especially early in the summer when the water is cold. Swimming ability is severely decreased in cold water.
Judge your ability to participate in beach activities based on your swimming skills without the assistance of rafts and other flotation devices.
Never dive into shallow water, or water of unknown depth.
If you are confronted by a large wave and there is not enough time to get away from it, try to dive underneath the wave. Keep your body as low as possible until the wave passes over you. Timing is important, dive into the base of the wave just before it breaks. Do not dive if the water is too shallow - instead crouch and keep a low body profile.
If caught in rip currents, relax and swim toward the shore at a 45-degree angle until you are free of the current. If the rip currents are strong, swim parallel with the shoreline in the same direction as the littoral current and then swim diagonally toward the shore.
If you are not able to swim out of the currents, call or wave for help.
When body surfing, do not ride waves in a straight line toward shore. Instead, surf at an angle to the waves. Stay away from the white water in the wave center to avoid going "over the falls."
Never swim while intoxicated. Alcohol impairs judgement, unnecessary risks are taken and a swimmer will tire more easily, increasing the chance of an accident.
Learn and use the Beaufort Wind Scale.
Avoid a UV sunburn.
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