Writer, editor, stumbler after Jesus

Seaside safety lessons

THAT SINGLE SET of footprints in the sand may not be where Jesus carried you, but—because you ignored the warning signs—where you had to find your way back to your towel after nearly drowning.

Living on the Gulf Coast, near the beach, I’ve learned to check which flags are flying each day: the water may look inviting, but sometimes it’s safer to stay dry.

Red flag days are pretty obvious: there’s a high hazard that is self-evident when you look out and see those big waves breaking. Only the more foolhardy would consider going into the water in those conditions.

It’s the yellow flag days you have to watch for, when there’s warning of potentially dangerous currents. To the undiscerning eye, everything can seem okay and then—wham!—you are pulled offshore by a rip current.

These common coastal conditions (where the water suddenly moves faster than Olympic record holder Michael Phelps, dragging you out to sea) account for 80 percent of rescues and around 100 deaths each year. Just the other day, one such rip current endangered several people not far down the coast from where we live, prompting a brave rescue operation by bystanders.

The daily morning text message I get telling me which flags are flying at the beach isn’t just a helpful precaution should I head to the sand. It’s also a useful reminder to me for everyday life.

Don’t be seduced. It may look fun and exciting to relax out there, but keep in mind the potential risks. You may only plan to paddle, but you could find yourself being swept off your feet. What starts out harmless can easily turn deadly. Consider the risks.

Listen to others. The people who put up the flags know what they are talking about. Float that idea you have past others you trust before just heading off on your own. If you’re not open to input from others in a course of action, or feel the need to keep it to yourself, that in itself might be a warning flag to consider.

Look for signs. Even when no hazard flag is flying, it’s wise to treat the ocean with respect. Rip currents can develop unexpectedly, although often there will be telltale signs for the observant. For example, different-colored channels of water. There’s no need for paranoia, but let’s be alert out there, people. Keep your eyes open at all times: scan the horizon.

Don’t panic. If you do find yourself being sucked out, don’t fight it. Most rip current deaths occur because people try to swim against the tow, and exhaust themselves. Knee-jerk reactions to drama may
often just make things worse. A crisis can be the worst time in which to make a hasty decision.

Go with the flow. Rather than try to fight your way back to shore when caught in a rip current, it’s best to let the tide carry you parallel until its strength dissipates. Then you can head toward the sand. Sometimes, when things go wrong, there may be consequences you just have to let play out before you can begin looking for solid ground again. Work with the situation not against it.

Wave for help. It’s not always obvious to others that someone is in trouble. Many water deaths are “silent drownings,” in which signs of their distress are missed. If you find yourself in need, don’t expect people to recognize it—be clear. This is no time to be embarrassed or ashamed, just cry out and signal for rescue. Don’t be afraid to admit you need help.


Photo credit: Daniel Kulinski via Foter.com/CC BY-NC-SA

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