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Sun, Sand, and Waves – Keeping Safe at the Beach Part 1

by Mario Vittone

It’s that time of year again – Beach time! To me, almost nothing is more fun than a day (or ten) of blue skies, sun, and surf. While fun, beaches have their own set of hazards. But you can manage them by doing just a few things before you set-up the chairs and point the kids at the waves. Here’s what to do:

Talk to the Guards

My first and best advice is to try to swim at beaches where there are lifeguards present. The United States Life Saving Association (USLA) estimates the chance of drowning on a guarded beach is 1 in 18,000,000.  Even so, the same rules about close supervision still apply, the surf is a whole different kind of water and beach guards are trained to handle it.

Make sure to talk to the guards before hitting the waves. Even if you have tons of experience and you know what you’re doing in the water, local guards usually know more and have been studying the waves on their beach.  They can warn you against dangerous currents or rough water, clue you in to local hazards like jellyfish or other pesky critters. The point is to talk to the pros before you go and be as aware as you can of the conditions.

I once nonchalantly asked a lifeguard, “How’s the water today?” – I wasn’t expecting anything but a casual answer.  “Good so long as you stay out of there,” he said, pointing out two serious rip currents that I couldn’t see from my vantage point.  He had a much better view from his elevated chair than I did and could easily see the rip currents that I hadn’t noticed.

Stay Safe at the Beach

Spot, Avoid, and Know How to Handle Rip Currents

All that water rolling in on the waves has to go back out. In certain conditions, that returning water is channeled into columns of seagoing water. That’s what a rip current is. Sometimes they move slow enough to barely be detected. But given the right circumstances relating to waves and beach profile, they can develop into currents moving at speeds of up to 8 feet per second – faster than anyone could possibly swim. Ranging in size from just a few feet to hundreds of yards, their pull can be to just outside of the breaking waves to over a hundred yards from shore.

As with all risks, avoiding it altogether is best. Though not always visually detectable (Again, ask that guard) stronger rip currents can give off some telltale signs. Look at the water and you may see:

  • An area of water through a surf zone that is a different color than the surrounding water
  • A break in the incoming pattern of waves – creating a smooth patch of water*
  • Seaweed or debris moving out through the surf zone
  • Isolated turbulent and choppy water in the surf zone

*Many assume the calm water at the beach is the safest place to swim, but be aware that the safe looking water may just look that way.

If you are caught in a rip current, the primary thing to do is to stay calm and relax. Swim slowly and conservatively parallel to the shoreline or relax, practice your best float or treading water technique and let it carry you out past the breakers until it slacks. Signal towards shore for assistance by raising an arm or waving, but stay calm. Don’t struggle against the current.

Contrary to myth – rip currents are not “undertow,” a misleading term. They will not pull you under the water. So long as you can tread water or float you will be safe until you can escape the flow and head back. When you head back in, do so at an angle to the shoreline. Again, maintain a slow and relaxed pace until you reach the shore or assistance has arrived. If swimming at a guarded beach ─ and you should be ─ they will most likely have seen you and will be on their way out (or watching carefully).

(Discuss rip currents and how to deal with them with your children. In fact, make them read every page of www.ripcurrents.noaa.gov and write you a report!)

Buddy Rules Apply

No one, not even experienced and strong swimmers, should swim alone. If that is important in pools (and it is) then it’s vital in open water. Personally, I don’t advocate even knee-deep wades into the surf line if you’re alone. In all but the most sloping and gentle beach, the bottom is a mystery at times and you can find yourself swimming when you didn’t intend to – like in the video below:

Have you had a close call at the beach with rough water or a rip current? How did you handle it? Let us know in the comments below – and if you have any questions at all feel free to ask there too.

Stay tuned for Part II where we’ll take on the sun, the sand, and things that sting. Until then, stay safe out there!

Mario Vittone - Water Safety ExpertMario Vittone is a nationally recognized expert on water safety. His writing on aquatic risk and drowning prevention has appeared in magazines, websites, and newspapers around the world. Mario is a former Coast Guard Helicopter Rescue Swimmer and instructor and has lectured on boating and water safety across the United States. He currently serves on the Board of Directors of the National Drowning Prevention Alliance and the Joshua Collingsworth Memorial Foundation.
Mario’s Blog | Facebook Page

What’s in Store This Year From Water Safety Expert, Mario Vittone


by Mario Vittone
Mario Vittone

Welcome to another season of safe swimming and fun at A Water-Full Life! This is my third year writing water safety advice and tips for parents at Swimways.com. I’m really looking forward to this year because we’ve decided to change direction and head to the beach and beyond.

We know you won’t only be in the back yard pool and wanted to give you safety tips for all destinations. I’ll give you my best safety tips for trips to the beach; what to watch for in the surf and the sand. I’ll give you a checklist and good advice on how to take your family on boating adventures while on vacation. You’ll get my thoughts on parasailing, life jacket use, fishing trips, sun safety, and how to avoid and handle jelly fish and other things that sting. We’re even going to cover cruise ships and help you stay safe at sea.

We know that fun in the water is more than just backyard pools and this year we are going to help you and your family be safe no matter where you are this summer. And something else is new for this year’s blog – video! I’ll take you to the beach to show you a rip current develop; we’ll go on a charter boat and show you what you should know about those adventures; you’ll see me find out just how deep the water is even when it looks shallow!

So stay tuned right here to the Water-Full Life Blog. You’ll have fun and be safe wherever the water takes you.

Mario

Mario Vittone - Water Safety ExpertMario Vittone is a nationally recognized expert on water safety. His writing on aquatic risk and drowning prevention has appeared in magazines, websites, and newspapers around the world. Mario is a former Coast Guard Helicopter Rescue Swimmer and instructor and has lectured on boating and water safety across the United States. He currently serves on the Board of Directors of the National Drowning Prevention Alliance and the Joshua Collingsworth Memorial Foundation.
Mario’s Blog | Facebook Page

Choosing a Formal Swim Instructor

by Mario Vittone

Though I am embarrassed to admit it, I have never been able to help much with math homework.  Sure, I’m a grown man and should know a few things, but advanced mathematics isn’t something I was ever good at.  Regardless of my grasp of the basics, I am far out of my depth when it comes to anything beyond geometry and basic algebra. So when it comes to helping the kids, my wife and I call in a pro (a local math teacher who tutors on the side) – and I stay out of the way. This is a good idea.

Likewise, you may be comfortable introducing your kids to the water and teaching them to relax and float, but advanced swimming lessons are simply more than you can handle.  That’s okay. If breath control and proper stroke technique have you scratching your head like – well, me with polynomial long division, here are some fundamentals for finding professional help.

1. Assess their commitment to safety and professional certification

Anyone serious about working with children in the water will have taken the time to get certified in CPR and first aid. At minimum, any swimming instructor should be certified in first aid, CPR, and lifeguarding. Another certification to look for is WSI or Water Safety Instruction.  This is the American Red Cross’s designation of a swim instructor.  You should have no hesitation in asking to see their credentials and a good instructor will have none in showing you them. 

There are other professional affiliations and training certificates that you may see, including affiliation with the U.S. Swim Schools Association. Association with a professional organization doesn’t guarantee perfection, but it does let you know that the school or instructor you are considering takes their profession seriously and is working with other professionals to improve their craft, and member schools are rated for their experience and commitment to the continuing education of their staff.

2. Understand their approach to instruction

Ask the instructor, what is your approach to swim instruction?  What do you try to accomplish?  What you are looking for is an instructor who works to build fundamentals and build up skills progressively. You’re listening for words like “fundamentals” and “progression” and “developing confidence” when asking questions about the way they teach.

Be wary of any guarantees for how fast or slow your child’s skills in the water may develop. Experienced instructors understand that children are different and will have their own pace when learning to swim.  That doesn’t mean that group instruction is better or worse than one-on-one lessons, but you want to be sure that swim instructors have an appropriate appreciation of your child’s individual needs.

Choosing a formal swim instructor by Mario Vittone

3. Watch them with other kids

I know I have discussed the importance of being there and being comfortable with your children in the water, but sometimes your presence can distract them. At certain ages, kids learn faster, stay focused longer, and even complain less when mom and dad are out of sight.  Some instructors have parents watching from a clandestine spot, and this is just fine. You should, of course, be able to watch lessons before you commit.  When you do this, you are looking for some very specific things.

You want an instructor or instructional team who appears patient and looks comfortable interacting with children the same age as your child.  You want to see if the students look engaged or bored.  Are they excited to be there and having fun, or do they look like it is drudgery?  While more fun equals more learning, don’t be too put off if the older kids look like they are doing some real work. What you are looking for as much as anything is the appearance that students like the instructors and vice versa.

The American Red Cross recommends no more than ten students for every instructor, so have a look at class sizes as well.  Again, group instruction isn’t a bad thing and it can even be preferable at times to one-on-one instruction. Children can gain confidence from watching others their age swimming alongside. But, too many kids at a time is hard to manage on dry land, much less in the water.

4. The classroom matters

Nothing takes the fun out of swimming like chattering teeth in a pool that is too cold.  Blue lips and shivering kids are a good sign that you should look somewhere else. The clarity and quality of the water are important as well. Water quality for your home pool is equally important for any pool where lessons are held.  It matters for the safety of the kids and for the quality of the learning that will go on when they are there.

Burning eyes from improper pH levels can ruin a lesson quicker than anything, and you can forget the fun factor if lessons = discomfort for your kids. A properly run pool will look and smell clean and clear. If it isn’t a place you would love to swim, your kids won’t either.

5. Reputation

I have several friends in the business of providing professional swim lessons and all of them are proud of what they do.  When you ask them for references (and you should, of course) a good instructor will be thrilled to hand them over.  You can ask the parents you see when you visit, but you also want to hear from the vets, whose children have been to the school and moved on.

My good friend Johnny Johnson of Blue Buoy Swim School in Tustin, California has taught generations of children and has a reputation spanning decades. Six of his students have competed in the Olympics! You should be so lucky to have a school like his nearby, but don’t be afraid of up-and-comers with a good reputation and the right credentials. Schools like Johnny’s have instructors who learn from the masters and move on to start their own schools in other markets.  So if a friend of yours recommends a school that is maybe a bit too far from your home, you should ask them for a professional reference for an instructor in your area.  Believe me, they’ll know who else is out there and will give you good advice.

Consider the five things listed above, ask good questions, and watch the instructors while they work. You’ll be well on your way to finding an instructor or swim school that is right for your child. In the end, you are looking for a place and for people that will help your child learn a skill for life. I don’t think it is a no-brainer decision, but it shouldn’t be as hard for you as trigonometry is for me.

Stay safe, have fun, and as always, I’d be glad to answer your questions in the comments below.

Mario Vittone - Water Safety Expert

Mario Vittone is a nationally recognized expert on water safety. His writing on aquatic risk and drowning prevention has appeared in magazines, websites, and newspapers around the world. Mario is a former Coast Guard Helicopter Rescue Swimmer and instructor and has lectured on boating and water safety across the United States. He currently serves on the Board of Directors of the National Drowning Prevention Alliance and the Joshua Collingsworth Memorial Foundation.
Mario’s Blog | Facebook Page