Out and About

Water Safety

Australian children have been playing in water – at the beach, in pools, rivers and creeks – for generations. But each year about 300 Australians drown – including around 50 children - and so it is crucial to know how to act safely in and around water.

The majority of children who drown in Australia are aged under five, and most of them between one and three years. But older children drown too – most of them after they are old enough to be considered responsible.

Am I safe in my backyard pool if I can swim?

Swimming lessons are an important part of water safety, and the majority of Australian children are taught to swim at a young age. However, being able to swim does not make you ‘drown proof’ – much care is still required in and around any water.

If you have a pool, your parents should have followed all the laws and guidelines related to fencing your pool.

Any small pools such as wading or paddling pools should be emptied after use and stored upright – small children can drown in water less than 5 cm deep.

If you have friends over, it is important to behave sensibly in and around the water – especially if one friend isn’t as good a swimmer as the rest of you. Never play water games that make anyone uncomfortable, and don’t behave in a way you know is unsafe to impress anyone.

Can I get sick from a backyard pool?

Laws outlining how much chlorine and other chemicals should be used in pools are made to keep germs and bacteria to a level that’s healthy for most pool users. Germs spread in pools through children swimming in the pools when unwell, urinating in the water and animal waste being washed into the water from the surrounding tiles or grass. Wading pools are more likely to have germs because they are used by children not yet toilet trained.

To avoid illness from a pool:
  • If it’s your family’s pool, ask your parents to maintain healthy levels of the chemicals that kill germs
  • Don’t let your pets in or near the pool
  • Don’t drink or inhale pool water
  • Don’t use the pool, and ask others not to use it, when unwell especially with a gastro illness
  • Take any younger siblings for regular toilet breaks and teach them not to wee in the pool
  • Wash your hands thoroughly before and after swimming.
If you have friends over, it is important to behave sensibly in and around the water

Surf safety

Beach safety is about using and practising common sense. If you are sensible, and seek sensible behaviour from your friends, you minimise the risk of accidents at the beach.

Different regions of Australia have different surf conditions – and different policies about lifesavers, the use of flags to indicate safe swimming areas, and the number of people swimming in popular beaches. If you get to know your favourite beaches, you’ll know the policies about safe swimming – but never assume you know a beach well enough that your safety is guaranteed.

How do I know where to swim?

Some general rules:
  • Never swim alone in case you get into trouble
  • Don’t go into the sea if it is very rough
  • Don’t swim after the sun goes down
  • If you hear a siren or voice calling, get out of the water quickly – someone may be in trouble or there may be a shark nearby
  • Red and yellow flags indicate where it’s safe to swim. If these flags are present, always swim where it’s shown to be safe. If you are in an area where flags aren’t used to indicate safe water, ask a lifesaver if it is safe to swim – and if there isn’t a lifesaver present, don’t swim if the flags are not up
  • In some States, flags and lifesavers aren’t required in areas where waves aren’t as big or the water isn’t as ‘tricky’ – that is, it doesn’t have strong currents or the sand doesn’t dip as sharply, both of which aren’t visible from the water’s edge. In these waters, it’s important to swim with someone else, and only walk out to a point at which you can stand comfortably.
How can waves help me decide if it’s safe to swim?

It’s important to learn as much as you can about the water, and how to cope with rips and currents.

Whether they are huge and attract the best surfers, or small enough to jump over, waves are often the most-loved aspect of the beach. Good waves can enable you to swim, surf and have fun. But waves can also be extremely dangerous – for children and adults. Waves can be a good indication of what is happening at the beach. You should learn to recognise the types of waves, and how to swim with them or when to avoid them.

Waves are formed by the wind blowing over the sea. Waves generally come in sets, with a lull period between successive sets reaching the beach.

Never swim alone in case you get into trouble

There are three types of waves – plunging, spilling and surging.
Plunging waves or ‘dumpers’ break with tremendous force and can easily throw a swimmer onto the shallow sand bar beneath the wave. They have been responsible for many neck and spinal injuries. They usually occur at low tide when the water is very shallow.

Spilling waves occur when the crest (or top) of the wave tumbles down the face (front) of the wave. These waves tend to form as the tide gets lower and the sand bank that the waves are breaking onto becomes shallower. These waves don’t ‘dump’ like breaking waves and because they give a good, gentle ride and are easy to catch and hold on to are the preferred waves for body surfing.

Surging waves may never actually break as they approach the water’s edge. The wave doesn’t lose speed or gain height. This means that surging waves don’t tend to plunge swimmers onto shallow sand bars – and so are ideal for children and poor swimmers.

In deeper waters, however, surging waves can unexpectedly wash swimmers off a sand bar and into an adjacent rip channel and easily knock people off their feet.

What are currents and why are they dangerous?

Currents at the beach generally occur in two forms: littoral currents and tidal currents.

Littoral currents occur where the waves are hitting the shore at an angle that forces the water to move along the shore, usually in deep gullies. These currents can sweep swimmers along the shore, and when combined with the sweeping effect of waves can be responsible for slowly moving swimmers off sand bars and into adjacent rip channels.

This is the real reason for swimmers suddenly and unexpectedly finding themselves in deeper water – not the ‘collapsing sand bar,’ which is a myth.

Tidal currents occur around the entrances of inlets that are found on many beaches. When the tide is going out, the water becomes confined as it moves out of a lagoon or estuary and through the narrow confines of the inlet. This leads to the formation of very strong currents that can sweep swimmers out to sea.

Beach safety is about using and practising common sense. If you are sensible, and seek sensible behaviour from your friends, you minimise the risk of accidents at the beach.

Why are rips so dangerous?

Rips are the cause of many beach rescues. Rips form where water moving over sand bars towards the beach returns back to sea along the channel between the sand bars. They are most prominent at low tide, when the sand bars are more exposed and the channels are more confined.

Rips occur most often under moderate swells of one metre or more. They can also form where a littoral current moving along a beach hits an obstruction such as headland or a reef and is forced out to sea.

Can I see a rip?

There are signs that you can use to recognise a rip:
  • Discoloured (brown) water, due to sand stirred off the bottom
  • Foam on the surface extending beyond the beach
  • Waves breaking further out on both sides of the rip but no waves breaking in the rip
  • Debris that floats away from the beach toward deeper water
  • A rippled appearance on the water’s surface, with surrounding water generally calm.

How do I escape from a rip?

It’s important not to panic if you’re caught in a rip. And don’t try to swim directly back to shore, as you will be swimming directly against the current of the rip, which usually flows faster than you can swim. This means you will use a lot of energy but get no closer to shore.

If lifesavers are present, raise your arm to attract attention and indicate that you’re in trouble. Attempt to swim parallel to the shore for about 30 metres, until you reach an adjacent sand bar. When you reach a sand bar, try and stand up in the shallower water, or swim back to shore with the incoming waves.

Are there other hazards at the beach?

There are other potentially harmful objects and situations at the beach:
  • Watch out for items in the sand that could be dangerous, such as syringes and broken bottles
  • If you’re in an area where bluebottles are found, keep an eye out for them
  • If you and your friends start digging a hole, be careful not to dig it beyond waist depth
  • Make sure you wear sunscreen at all times, reapplying frequently, and use insect repellent if flies or other insects are troublesome.
Watch out for items in the sand that could be dangerous, such as syringes and broken bottles

Water safety in rural areas

Rural environments have even more water hazards than urban and suburban areas. Children are at risk of drowning in dams and creeks, and in rivers where they water-ski and holiday on houseboats. Older children are particularly at risk if they attempt activities or levels of activity beyond their abilities.

If you live or holiday in a rural area which has a dam or other
water nearby:
  • Don’t go near it alone. It’s always best to have an adult with you
  • Don’t allow small children to go near it without adult supervision
  • Make sure you and your friends or siblings follow all rules about where and when it’s possible to swim.

10 surf safety tips

  •  Swim between the red and yellow flags at the beach. The red and yellow flags indicate the safest place to swim when lifeguards and lifesavers patrol beaches
  • Always swim or surf at places patrolled by lifesavers or lifeguards
  • Always swim under supervision
  • Read and obey the signs
  • If you are unsure of surf conditions, ask a lifeguard or lifesaver
  • Don't swim directly after a meal
  • Don't swim under the influence of alcohol or drugs
  • Always check the depth of the water
  • Never run or dive in the water. Even if you have checked the depth, water conditions can change
  • If you get into trouble in the water, stay calm. Signal for help, by holding up one arm and waving, float and wait for assistance.
Source - Surf Life Saving

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