health and outdoors

How to be safe at the surf — or your family pool

How to be safe at the surf — or your family pool

Austin Photo Set: News_Jeff_swimming safety_june 2012
Courtesy of

A couple of years ago, tragedy struck a family in my neighborhood. Two young brothers made their way unnoticed into the backyard, slipped into the pool and drowned. Unfortunately, drownings happen all too often.

According to a recent report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, each year from 2005 to 2009 an average of 3,880 people — more than 10 a day — died by drowning. An estimated 5,789 people were treated in emergency rooms each year for nonfatal drowning.

As you might expect, children under 5-years-old are the most frequent victims of drowning. Even those who survive may be left with permanent brain damage. Did you know that small child can drown in just inches of water? In most cases, rescue must occur within five minutes to reduce the risk of death.

When we installed our backyard swimming pool, our children were very young. Although there was no law requiring it, we enclosed our pool with a 4 foot high chain link fence to prevent the girls from entering the pool if they should escape our watchful eyes.

With little kids you must always be vigilant. For example, the last time my 3-year-old grandson visited, I found him crawling out the doggy door into my backyard — which has a swimming pool.

You also must remain vigilant even if your community or club pool has a lifeguard. A recent study out of the University of Florida School of Medicine found that more drownings occurred in pools with a lifeguard than without one. Too often lifeguards can be distracted, and it’s often the swimmers that find the victims first.

While small children often drown in pools, teenagers and adults most often drown at the beach at the hand of dangerous rip currents.

Rip currents are the leading surf hazard for all beach-goers. Listen to this. Rip current speeds are typically 1 to 2 feet per second. However, speeds as high as 8 feet per second have been measured (this is faster than an Olympic swimmer can sprint!). Thus, rip currents can sweep even the strongest swimmer out to sea.

More than 80 percent of water rescues on surf beaches are due to rip currents and they can occur at any surf beach with breaking waves, including the Great Lakes.

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.

To identify rip currents, look for any of these clues:

  • a channel of churning, choppy water
  • an area having a notable difference in water color
  • a line of foam, seaweed, or debris moving steadily seaward
  • a break in the incoming wave pattern
  • and, by all means, heed any posted warnings!

A rip current is neither horizontal nor an undertows — it is a current that pulls people out to sea. If you happen to be caught in one, remain calm to conserve energy and think clearly. Do not fight the current. Do not try to swim against the current and back to shore — swim out of the current in a direction following the shoreline. When you’re out of the current, swim towards shore.

If you are unable to reach shore, draw attention to yourself by facing the shore and yelling for help.

Drowning deaths occur when people pulled offshore are unable to keep themselves afloat and swim to shore. Often this may be due to any combination of fear, panic, exhaustion or lack of swimming skills.

And please remember that many people drown while trying to save someone else from a rip current.

Be careful and stay alert when you and your family are by the pool or vacationing at the beach this summer. You don’t want tragedy to strike as it did to the family in my neighborhood.