11 August, 2017
by Challenge Action

Preventing drowning at sea

If this article on how to avoid drowning saves one person, I’ll be happy. According to prevention specialists, 90% of adult drownings at sea are caused by swimmers exhausted trying to get back to their starting point in currents.The sea is the place where most drownings take place, so here are a few simple solutions […]

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If this article on how to avoid drowning saves one person, I’ll be happy.

According to prevention specialists, 90% of adult drownings at sea are caused by swimmers exhausted trying to get back to their starting point in currents.
The sea is the place where most drownings take place, so here are a few simple solutions to save yourself in a difficult situation. If it saves a life, so much the better.

Who drowns most?

Studies show that certain populations are more at risk.

  • Children, many of whom cannot swim
  • 20- to 24-year-olds who often overestimate their strengths
  • People over 65
  • Men in general, but it’s hard to say whether this is because they overestimate their strength or because there are more of them in the water.

Avoiding drowning: the causes

  • Hypothermia: the cold is the worst enemy of sailors and yachtsmen who fall overboard, especially in winter. Depending on water temperature, survival is only 1 hour in water at 5 degrees and 2 hours in water at 10 degrees.
  • Hydrocution for holidaymakers who jump into the water after long sunbaths
  • Current exhaustion: this is the most common cause of current exhaustion in seawater, and is the subject of this article.

Different types of current

Marine currents are all the more dangerous because it’s often difficult to see them when you’re in the water, and sometimes it’s too late to realize it. There are several types:

  • Tidal currents as the tide rises and falls. These currents are relatively predictable if you know a little about the coast and the tide schedule. They range from low during small tides to high during large tides and at bottlenecks. The locals generally know them well and will explain the direction in which they lead. The most dangerous currents are the ebb tide, which carries the water out to sea. As for the others, if you get caught, never try to swim against the current, just let yourself be carried along, or try to swim at 90 degrees to the direction of the current, without forcing yourself, to try to get out.
  • Wave currents are more difficult to understand, as they depend on the configuration of the site, which can change according to the tides and the time of year. Sandbanks, for example, can shift and change direction.

Wave currents on the beach

Waves generate enormous power, which is often underestimated. They break rocks, move boulders several hundred meters and destroy jetties. When waves arrive on a beach, the water must then flow back out to sea before the next wave, creating a strong current depending on the path the water takes:

  • The receding current, when the water flows backwards, is what happens on steep beaches. The swimmer has no choice but to take advantage of a wave to get closer to shore, but the withdrawal will send him back out to sea. Caught in the washing machine, the swimmer will have great difficulty extracting himself. In short, avoid steeply sloping beaches when the waves are high. What’s more, the force of the waves can dislocate or even break cervical vertebrae.
  • Lateral current: water flows parallel to the beach towards one of its sides. On some beaches, such as Port Donnant in Belle Isle (France), it can split in two and flow towards both sides of a U-shaped beach. This side current isn’t immediately dangerous, but it does lead to an extremely dangerous offshore current.
  • The current to the left or right of the beach leads out to sea, with the water draining off to the sides of the beach. This current can be extremely powerful, as on the beaches of Zipolite in Mexico or Kilauea in Hawaii, which are among the most dangerous in the world. The solution is to let yourself be carried along and swim parallel to the beach to try to get out of the flow.
  • The baïnes current is created by the flow of water from the waves into large sandy basins, with the water flowing back over the side, bringing bathers along the coast. Here again, the solution is to let yourself be carried along without panicking and without wanting to return to the starting point. They are generally narrow and, after a few hundred meters or kilometers, they will fade.

Avoid drowning: how to read the beach

The height of the waves gives an idea of their strength.
Their positioning indicates the shape of the beach, shoals, rocks and sandbanks.
Color indicates wind, currents, depth, algae and rocks.

  • The stronger the wind, the darker it appears in relation to other parts of the water.
  • The light is also sand, the dark seaweed and rocks.
  • Currents are visible in calm weather, and are characterized by clearer, smoother veins, with fewer splashes, smoother than the surrounding water.
  • On beaches, on the other hand, seaward rip currents are darker, as they carry more particles, and are therefore the most dangerous.

The parts of a beach without waves, contrary to what you might think, are often the most dangerous, as they can indicate areas where currents converge. This means that beach areas with clean waves are often safer, at least as far as currents are concerned.

Precautions to take to prevent drowning

Of course, these precautions depend on the difficulty of the conditions and your level as a swimmer.


Before bathing

  • Zipolite beach in Mexico and its special features.
  • Don’t presume on your strengths or what you may have done before, you may not have had the same training. Overconfidence and underestimating natural conditions are the most common causes of drowning.
  • Avoid swimming after heavy meals, alcohol or drugs.
  • Check the color of the flag on the beach if it is supervised. The green flag indicates supervised swimming, the orange indicates dangerous swimming, and the red indicates that swimming is prohibited.
  • If there are waves on the beach, beware of calm areas
  • Give priority to bathing where there are other bathers.
  • If there’s no one around, swim where there are buoys marking the water’s edge. This will enable you to hold on if necessary, but also to check whether you’re drifting, so you’ll know the current and its direction. If there are no buoys, take a landmark on the beach to check if you’re drifting.

During the bath

  • Enter the water slowly, especially if it’s cold and you’ve been in the sun, to avoid the risk of hydrocution.
  • When the water’s up to your waist, stand on one leg and you’ll easily see which way you’re falling, and therefore the direction of the current.
  • Instead, swim your laps along the beach rather than out to sea.
  • Dive under strong waves. If you open your eyes, the water is darker as the breaker passes, lighter afterwards.
  • Don’t wait until you’re tired or cold to return if you’re in difficult conditions, always keep a reserve of energy for your return.
  • If you see that you can’t get back to your starting point, let yourself be carried along without panicking or swim, calmly, without exhausting yourself, 90 degrees in the direction you think the current is taking you. If it’s a current that pulls you out to sea, it means you’re swimming parallel to the beach.
  • If you are exhausted, rest in one of these three ways:
    • Plank on your back if you’re out of breath: your airways are clear and you can calmly catch your breath. If the sea is rough, avoid surfing into the wind and chop, as the water will come in through your nostrils. Instead, surf with your head back to the wind, or sideways if you want to check for big waves.
    • On the spot, moving your feet and arms to keep you on the water
    • Stand up straight, leave your head in the water to relax, then pull it out again. You can hold this position for a long time.
  • Types of swimming :
    • Breaststroke is the most suitable for long distances, as it limits energy loss.
    • The little dog’s swim is good when you have a lifebelt.
    • The Indian, which is relaxing and uses only one arm.


If you are a witness

  • While the swimmer is in difficulty
    • Call for help
    • Don’t take your eyes off the victim
    • Only intervene if you are in excellent physical condition
    • Swimming to bring back a victim requires you to pass an arm under the armpit, and you must be able to bring the victim back by regularly putting your head under water, especially when the water is rough.
  • Then if the victim is breathing, but not conscious:
    • Warm it up
    • If breathing, but not conscious, put her in the lateral safety position
    • If she is not breathing, perform cardiac massage if you know how.

After bathing

Give yourself objective feedback on the good things you’ve done and the mistakes you’ve made. That’s how you’ll learn.

To sum up, in the event of difficulty

  • Don’t panic
  • Try to understand the direction of the current
  • Don’t fight against the current, resist the urge to return to your starting point
  • Let yourself be carried by the current, and you’ll land farther away, or we’ll come and get you.
  • Try to see if there are people close by and wave with your arms.
  • Rest: use a kickboard to catch your breath, or swim on the spot, dipping your head in the water from time to time to relax.
  • Swim parallel to the beach then at an angle

Remember, don’t try to get back to where you started if you can’t, and don’t wear yourself out.

Jean-Pierre Mercier