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Healthy Traveler

For Water Safety, Swim Sensibly and Stay Close to the Lifeguard


Swimming, splashing and wading can make summer travels memorable, whether the water of choice is a hotel pool, the ocean or a river or stream.

But of course, swimming is not without risks. Besides drowning, the obvious hazard, there are rarer but still real risks such as shark attack. Late last month, a surfer was attacked by a great white shark at Stinson Beach in Northern California, reminding swimmers that the ocean is not theirs alone.

But a savvy swimmer can minimize the risks.

To lessen the chance of drowning at hotel pools or at beaches, swim in view of a lifeguard, says Brant Bass, a lifeguard lieutenant with the City of San Diego Lifeguard Service. In fact, the U.S. Lifesaving Assn.--with which the San Diego service is affiliated--puts the risk of drowning at a beach overseen by USLA lifeguards at 1 in 18 million.

Drinking alcoholic beverages before or during swimming and other water recreation substantially increases the chance of drowning, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Alcohol is involved in a quarter to half of all teen and adult deaths associated with water recreation. In drownings of teen boys, alcohol is involved half the time, the CDC estimates.

Alcohol seems also to play a role in risky nighttime swimming in the ocean, says John Everhart, a lifeguard sergeant with the San Diego lifeguard service. "Intoxicated people will jump off the pier," he says, "often on a bet from their friends." Ocean swimming at night--when no lifeguards are on duty--and swimming while inebriated are high-risk activities, he says.

Inexperience in ocean swimming creates another drowning risk. Pool swimmers are often unfamiliar with rip currents, Bass says, and swimmers who are just adequate in a pool are typically not very good ocean swimmers. "You need to be a good, strong pool swimmer before swimming in the ocean," he says. "Our last several drowning [victims] have been very poor swimmers."

Even a strong swimmer can get into trouble in rip currents--seaward-going currents that can pull swimmers under. "Eighty percent of our rescues, at least in San Diego, are in rip currents," Bass says.

How do you recognize a danger zone? "It's tough to give a blanket statement of what a rip current looks like," Everhart says. "To the untrained eye, it can look like the safest place to swim because the waves are not breaking there [as they are in surrounding areas]." Other warning signs, according to the CDC, include water that is discolored, unusually choppy, foamy or filled with debris. And suspect rip currents around big rocks or a pier, Everhart adds.

If you find yourself in a rip current, Bass says you should "swim parallel to the beach, toward any waves, and then in to shore." And most of all, he says, try not to panic. "Signal the lifeguard you need assistance by raising your arm and yelling," Everhart adds.

Experts also suggest restricting ocean swimming to designated areas, which are usually marked by buoys. Check the weather forecast before heading out to do ocean swimming. Do not swim if you see lightning, Everhart says.

If you don't know whether an area is frequented by sharks, your best bet is to ask the lifeguard, Bass says. Don't rely on hearsay from other swimmers or surfers. Depending on your destination, he also suggests asking about other ocean animals you might not want to share the water with, such as stinging jellyfish.

Everhart strongly cautions inexperienced swimmers to avoid rivers. "Swimming in rivers is incredibly dangerous," he says, although most travelers and swimmers don't realize it. "There's no letup in the current. It can take you under or pin you against an object [near the shore]. And I'm not aware of any rivers, at least in Southern California, with lifeguards."


Healthy Traveler appears twice a month. The writer can be reached at

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