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As events in recent months have highlighted, the need for beachgoers to be aware of the dangers of rip currents and how to safely attempt bystander rescue is more important than ever.

Rip currents account for many fatal drownings each year. Sadly, the start of the spring and summer ’22 season has been blighted by incidents involving children and adults caught in – and succumbing to – rip currents at various beaches around the country. Rip currents are often hard to spot from the beach, but they can pull people away in seconds, making the surf area of a beach just as dangerous as the waters beyond the breakers. Rip currents can travel up to two metres per second, which is faster than anyone is able to swim.

A sad start to the season

In four separate incidents, NSRI stations responded to drownings in progress. In Port Edward, Station 32 crew were activated to a drowning in progress at Mzamba Beach. NSRI rescue swimmers and other emergency services arrived on the scene to find two teenagers, aged 12 and 14, in difficulty in a rip current. The younger of the two boys was later found on the beach and taken into care for non-fatal drowning symptoms. The older child, sadly, did not survive.

In Port Alfred, a 19-year-old student wading in waste-deep water was swept out to sea by a strong rip current. Station 11 crew responded and were able to reach her in the surf line in rough sea conditions. Extensive and ongoing efforts to resuscitate her were in vain.

Station 41 (Ballito) was activated after reports of a drowning in progress at Thompson’s Tidal Pool were received. NSRI rescue swimmers and other emergency services, including Netcare 911, responded. An adult male had entered the water to save his young daughter who appeared to have been swept off the rocks at the tidal pool. He had been able to get his daughter to safety by pushing her towards the shore where she was recovered by family members. But during these efforts, he was pulled out to sea by a rip current and may have sustained head injuries in the process. He did not survive.

In late September, a man lost his life after entering the water to save three teenagers in difficulty in the water off Mnandi Beach. His efforts were successful, but he tragically lost his own life.

What are rip currents?

Because many people find rip currents hard to see, there is a good chance that beach visitors suddenly find themselves being pulled out to sea. Understandably, this easily leads to panic and then the person is in real danger of drowning. This makes rip currents particularly dangerous. They can flow at an angle to the beach or pull one directly out to sea. But there are signs: when approaching the water, be on the lookout for deeper, darker water, areas where there are fewer breaking waves, or sandy or discoloured water.

Lifeguards are trained to spot rips, and will set up flags on beaches where the swimming areas are safe. Swim in between these flags. Avoid beaches where there are no lifeguards, and, no matter how tempting, never swim at deserted beaches. And never go swimming alone.

If you do get caught in a rip current, try not to panic. First, concentrate on floating, and try to move at a 90-degree angle to the direction in which you’re being pulled. If you can, wave your arms in the air, so that lifeguards on the beach can see you’re in trouble. If you’re on the beach and can see someone in trouble, alert the lifeguards or call 112 from your cellphone. If the person is close enough, throw anything that floats to them. If there is a Pink Rescue Buoy in the vicinity, throw that to them until help arrives. Don’t ever attempt a rescue unless you’re able to take some sort of flotation with you – this can be a bodyboard or surfboard or Pink Rescue Buoy. It’s part of human nature to want to help someone in trouble, but bystander rescues can – and do – result in a double tragedy.

Using flotation

NSRI’s Drowning Prevention Manager Andrew Ingram says: “It is extremely dangerous to attempt an in-water rescue, i.e. swimming out to try and help someone. If possible call the NSRI for help (112 from a cellphone) and throw something to the person that can help them to float. If this is not possible and you decide that you are going into the water to help, make sure that you take something that floats with you. This is for your safety (for when you get tired, and you will get tired) and for the person who is in difficulty. A surfboard, body board, or an NSRI Pink Rescue Buoy are good examples of things that will keep you and the person you are going to help stay afloat.’

Incidentally, NSRI’s Drowning Prevention Department reports that of the 128 people rescued with the use of a Pink Rescue Buoy since the project started in November 2017, 95 (74%) were reportedly caught in a rip current.

Public rescue equipment (PRE) is only as good as the people using them to save a life. Andrew refers to a paper prepared by Surf Life Saving New Zealand, titled ‘Public rescue equipment for in-water bystander rescue at beaches’. The paper highlights that “undertaking an in-water rescue at beaches is safer for the rescuer if they take some form of flotation to protect themselves”.

While the NSRI’s Pink Rescue Buoy initiative and Water Safety Education programme have made great strides in addressing drowning prevention in the country, it’s important for each of us to remain aware of the dangers associated with water, and to take care of ourselves and those around us by using PRE responsibility and calling for help quickly.

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