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The landlubbers' guide to the sea

Did you know that Great Britain has a coastline longer than many other similar-sized countries? This is because our coastline is very wiggly; think of the Scottish coast. You might then think there must be a lot of people living near the sea, but actually, there aren’t. Only about 5.3 million people live near the coast in England and Wales out of a population of around 60 million. That leaves a lot of people who only visit it for holidays and day trips.

We know when we're at the coast that emergency services likes the RNLI and HM Coastguard are there to help if we get into trouble. But we can also help ourselves with some basic beach knowledge. Out of all those people who visit the coast each year, how many know basic health and safety for being on the beach and at sea? For instance, will they know what the flag signals mean at the beach? Do they know if the part of the beach they are building their sandcastle on is still accessible once the tide has come in? Do they even know when the tides are?

I recently went on holiday to Cornwall. I love the seaside: the fresh air, the ice cream, the sandcastle building, rock pools and paddling. Notice I say paddling. Get me up to my waist in the sea and I start to panic. What if there is one of those monsters from the deep is out there waiting for me? A rogue wave might knock me over! What if there is a strong current that is going to wash me out to sea? Or what if the tide comes in and I am somehow miles away from the beach? So I decided when I came back that I would learn more about beach and sea safety.

First things first: do some research on the area you are going to. The RNLI patrol up to 240 beaches depending on the season. Their website has a search engine for you to find the nearest beach that they patrol. If you haven’t done your research (tsk tsk) then you will know that they are around by the red and yellow flags that will be flying. The area between the flags means that it is a safe place to swim and bodyboard. They also have a special flag for surfboards, paddleboards and kayaks. These flags are black and white chequered. There are two other flags that they use: one is red, and means ‘danger, don't go in the water’; the orange sock flag, meanwhile, means strong winds, so no inflatables in the water.

You might be unlucky and the place you are going to doesn’t have lifeguards on duty, but you still want to go for a swim. Before you arrive you should still do some research on your beach. Always get the information beforehand as not all beaches have phone signals. It is always a good idea to know when the tides are. The height of the tide can be different day-to-day on the same beach. This could mean that the spot you sat on one day could be underwater the next. The tide coming in can also change the depth of water you are in. It might have only been up to your waist when you started to swim, but could get up to 10 metres deeper! The deep end of local swimming pools are only about two meters deep. Tides do follow a timetable so you will at least know when the tide is coming in or out. The RNLI have a tide timetable on their website, so check it out beforehand. The tides can come in or out quickly. Always keep one eye on what it is doing. People every year have to be rescued because they are stranded in a cove when the tide has come in.

The sea is an unpredictable force of nature; it can at times look nice and inviting but it hides many dangers. One of these is rip currents. A lot of people, including myself, get them mixed up with undercurrents. They are a different beast altogether. A rip current is a channel of water that returns breaking waves back out to sea. These channels can be very fast moving. Some are faster than an Olympic swimmer. Rips are not just found at the coast so beware of swimming around river mouths and estuaries. They are not always easy to see but be on the lookout for a channel of calmer water or darker water between waves, a rippled surface or a surface that looks cloudy with sand or silt. The best thing to do is ask a lifeguard. If you are ever caught in a rip current don't panic and try to swim against it. You will tire yourself out. Try to swim at an angle to the current, preferably parallel to the shore (not all rips come straight at the beach, they might be angled towards the beach). Once out of the current return to the beach. If you can walk in the current, wade back. If none of these will work in your current situation make sure to shout for help. Floating is a good way to save you energy while waiting for help to be brought.

Now that we are done with the scary rips let’s talk waves. There are people out there who like waves. They like riding them and jumping them or swimming into them. I don't understand these people. Waves push you over and ride roughshod over you so you end up with a load of saltwater up your nose. If you plan to play in the waves there are still more safety things you need to know (sorry I know I am filling a fun day out with rules and scary stories but a day can turn very quickly and it is best to be prepared). There are loads of factors that affect how a wave will turn out, but a good rule of thumb is that a southeast wind tends to cause smaller waves and the southwest tends to cause bigger and stronger waves. Waves also come in sets, and the middle wave in a set can be bigger and stronger than the other. It can also come further up the beach. According to the RNLI, there are three types of waves: spilling, dumping and surging. Spilling waves are the best for beginners as they are softer. Dumping waves break powerfully in shallow water. These should be avoided if you are a beginner. The final type is surging. These waves do not break, so they are more likely to knock you over and carry you out. Waves for some can be a lot of fun, but be mindful of what you are capable of physically.

The sea is cold (really cold) here in Britain; the average temperature of the sea is 12c. The sea can be cold all year, even in the summer. Coldwater can be very dangerous as it can cause cold water shock. Here is the description on the RNLI website:

“Coldwater shock causes the blood vessels in the skin to close, which increases the resistance of blood flow. Heart rate is also increased. As a result, the heart has to work harder and your blood pressure goes up. Coldwater shock can therefore cause heart attacks, even in the relatively young and healthy.

"The sudden cooling of the skin by cold water also causes an involuntary gasp for breath. Breathing rates can change uncontrollably, sometimes increasing as much as tenfold. All these responses contribute to a feeling of panic, increasing the chance of inhaling water directly into the lungs.

"This can all happen very quickly: it only takes half a pint of seawater to enter the lungs for a fully grown man to start drowning. You could die if you don't get medical care immediately.”

Coldwater shock should also be considered when swimming, jumping in lakes, rivers and reservoirs, as these bodies of water tend to be even colder than the sea. So if you fall into cold water and start to suffer from shock, try to stay calm. The initial effects only last a minute and then you might be able to get to safety. Call for help if you are able, and also try to float if you are unable to get to safety. To help avoid shock, do your research and check the water temperature. Stay clear of fall hazards where you might trip into cold water. If it’s going to be cold, wear an appropriate wet suit or life jacket. If you don’t have either of these, surf shops tend to rent out wetsuits, and if you are going on a boat ask for a life jacket.

Here are some little hints and tips that I find useful. Always try to leave a place the same as you find it or better. Basically, take your rubbish with you. In Cornwall, I saw a lot of rubbish on some of the bigger beaches. Some might have been brought in by the sea, some left by people. It is never fun to be building a sandcastle only to pick up someone’s half-eaten chicken wings (this happened too by the way and it was gross) or to be surrounded by old crisp packets and bottles. Also, glass is a big no-no as it is hard to see in the sand and can cause serious injury. If you do see rubbish, take it with you as long as it is safe for you to do so. As Tesco says: every little helps. Don't dig massive holes, and I mean massive. Some people dig holes that are taller than a full-grown man. These holes can collapse and when they do they can be dangerous as sand is heavy and can suffocate. If you do dig holes don't forget to fill them in when you leave. For people with poor sight or people walking when it is dark, it can be a trip hazard. When the tide comes, the hole might not be visible to people walking along the surf. We wouldn’t want a Dr Foster moment with someone up to their middle in seawater, or cause someone to go into shock by falling into a large hole of cold water.

Do you remember the sea monsters I mentioned? Well, the UK might not have a group of Kraken roaming the coast but we do have many sea creatures. Some of these will sting or bite you. If you do get stung by a sea creature like a jellyfish the NHS recommends the following: rinse the sting in seawater, not freshwater, remove any spines or stingers with tweezers not your fingers, soak the sting in as hot water as is comfortable and take pain killers. Contrary to urban myth, do not pee or put vinegar on it. You should go to the minor injuries unit if you are stung on the face or your privates, or if the pain is strong and isn’t going away, or you are stung by a stingray. Go to A&E or call 999 if you have difficulty breathing, chest pain, fits or seizures, severe swelling around the affected area, severe bleeding, vomiting, light-headedness or loss of consciousness.

Hopefully, the next time you are at the beach you have a safe and fun time, but with the sea and the British weather you never know. So if you get into trouble, remember the RNLIs advice which is “Float to live” Here is their guide to floating:

  1. Fight your instinct to thrash around

  2. Lean back, extend your arms and legs

  3. If you need to, gently move them around to help you float

  4. Float until you can control your breathing

  5. Only then call for help or swim to safety

If you have an emergency, call 999 (UK) or 112 (Ireland) and ask for the coastguard. Please check out the RNLI website which is very informative and don't forget the RNLI is a charity and is not a public service like the police or fire service. Any support that you give will be greatly appreciated. Below are the links for the Met office tide times and the RNLI lifeguard beach finder.

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