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Beach safety: Lessons from a lifeguard
Craig Roberts of Surf Life Saving New South Wales gives us his expert tips to ensure a season of summer fun.
Rip it up
Problem: Rips fast-moving channels of water played a part in 27 per cent of drownings in the 2006/2007 summer season.
Protect yourself: Always swim at a patrolled beach with lifeguards on hand and swim between the flags. If you do get caught in a rip, don’t panic. “There is a myth that you will be taken out to sea and this is not the case,” says Roberts. “Rips loose their strength as they move away from the shore. Never swim against the rip to get back to shore as this will quickly exhaust you. Swim sideways out of the rip – either side is fine. If you are in any difficulty, raise your hand and a lifesaver or lifeguard will come to help you.”
Three ways to spot a rip:
1. Watch the line of breaking waves and you will see an area where the waves do not break as dramatically or sometimes don’t break at all.
2. Look to the experts. Lifeguards will show you where rips are present or you may spot experienced surfers using the rips to get out past the breaking waves.
3. Rips can stir up sand from the ocean floor so the water appears murky and brown.
Don’t cramp your style
Problem: Dehydration, over exertion or lack of potassium can cause a sudden arm, leg or stomach cramp while swimming.
Protect yourself: If you’re a strong swimmer, you should be able to tread water and massage the cramping muscle until it stops. “If you’re not a strong swimmer and you get cramp, don’t panic,” says Roberts. “Tread water until the sensation passes or use a wave to get in to shore. If in doubt, raise your hand for help.”
Bottle it up
Problem: Lifesavers gave first aid treatment to 8,984 people in NSW with marine stings in the 2007-2008 summer season. Of these, the bluebottle is the most common.
Protect yourself: You can spot bluebottles by looking at the wash on the shore – if there are bluebottles in the water, you’ll see the small blue critters on the sand. Remember that a bluebottle’s tentacles can range in length from 15cm up to 10 metres long so even if you spot them some distance away, their tentacles could be closer than you think under the water.
If you get stung, warm, fresh water is the best treatment. “Bluebottles leave tiny barbs in the skin,” says Roberts. “So after dousing the area with plenty of warm water, you’ll need to pull these out with your finger nails. “If you receive a sting in or around your mouth seek help immediately. “This can cause swelling and may obstruct your airways. Raise your hand for assistance immediately and the lifesavers or lifeguards will help you.”
Three deadly jellyfish to watch out for
1. Box Jellyfish: Present in northern waters (mainly NT) between October and April. They are box shaped and can be up to three metres long and 25cm across. They have the most rapidly acting venom known to science, which can kill a person in less than five minutes.
2. Irukandji Jellyfish: Present in the water between November and May/June in Northern Queensland and NT waters. They are very tiny (only 2.5cm in diameter) and have a highly venomous sting that can cause death within days.
3. Blue-ringed octopus: Found in NSW waters, this octopus has a painless bite but it can kill you in 30 minutes.
Problem: In 2007, there were 18 confirmed shark attacks in Australia and a fatality in April 2008 on the North Coast of NSW.
Protect yourself: If you spot a shark, swim in to shore and don’t panic. “Avoid swimming near the mouth of rivers, where they join the ocean,” adds Roberts. “This is a common place to find bull sharks one of the most aggressive of the species. For the most part, sharks are well-fed and unlikely to attack. Keep that in mind, don’t thrash, don’t panic and swim to shore.”
Defeat the heat
Problem: Heat stress can strike when you’re enjoying the great outdoors. It occurs when your body becomes dehydrated and is unable to cool itself effectively. If left untreated, this can lead to heat stroke. Your risk for developing heat stress occurs when temperatures reach 35 degrees or higher.
Protect yourself: “Cover yourself well, wear a hat, invest in a sun shade or shade tent, drink plenty of water and avoid visiting the beach when the sun is at its hottest – between 11am and 2pm,” says Roberts.
Problem: The Cancer Council’s National Sun Protection Survey (2006/2007) shows that 14 per cent of adults were sunburnt on a typical summer weekend.
Protect yourself: “Avoid going to the beach when the UV rays are at their most intense between 11am and 2pm – this is when the beach is at its hottest,” says Roberts. “When you’re on the beach slip on UV protective clothing, slap on a hat, slop on water-resistant sunscreen. Be aware that UV rays bounce off the sand and flat surfaces, so you need to apply sunblock everywhere – including under your chin, ears, shoulders, noses and the tops of your feet. Rash vests and suits will also protect your skin.”
If you do get burnt, drink plenty of water, calm burnt skin by having a cold (not freezing) shower and applying soothing aloe vera – use as close to a 100 per cent solution as you can find. “Watch out for signs of dizziness or nausea, which may indicate a more serious condition,” says Roberts. “Severe, all-over sunburn may have to be treated in hospital.”
Problem: Sand flies (also known as biting midges) bite into the skin to suck blood, which can be annoying and painful.
Protect yourself: Steer clear of beaches with lots of decaying seaweed and other debris as the flies reproduce on decaying plants. If the flies are biting, insect repellent can work apply one that contains DEET (which works as a chemical cloak to block mosquitoes' ability to smell humans) as part of your pre-beach routine. “In some areas they can be very persistent and oblivious to repellent,” Roberts says. “If you’re in an area where they’re bad, remember that they’re usually worst first thing in the morning and as the sun goes down.”
Problem: Big, dumping waves can throw even the most experienced swimmer.
Protect yourself: Never swim in big surf. “If a beach is closed the lifesavers or lifeguards on duty would have deemed it unsafe for swimming,” says Roberts. “Heed their advice. In really warm weather, it can be tempting to go for a quick dip, even if the surf is big, but Surf Life Saving New South Wales strongly advises that you have a cold shower or go to a sheltered rock pool in your area. You won’t drown in the shower or a rock pool under normal circumstances!”
How to spot dangerous waves
1. Dumping waves break quickly and often make a loud noise that’s like a clap. Big dumping waves are responsible for a significant proportion of neck and spinal injuries each year.
2. Waves that break on sand banks can be dangerous. Sand is always on the move on the ocean floor and beaches often have one or two submerged sand banks where waves can break with reasonable force.
3. Ask the lifesavers or lifeguards on the beach if there are tricky conditions.