According to the Royal Life Saving Society of Australia’s ‘National Drowning Report 2015‘, 271 people drowned in Australian waterways in the period 2014/15.

  • Of the total drowning deaths, 216 were men and 55 were women
  • The 45-54 years age-group suffered the largest number of drowning deaths, with 48 drownings (18% of total drownings)
  • 55 (20%) of drowning deaths occurred at beaches.

Robert Brander is a coastal geomorphologist with expertise in rip currents and is also a member of the Tamarama Beach Surf Life Saving Club.  In a 2014 article for The Conversation, he states that 21 people drown each year in rip currents on Australian surf beaches.

Brandon writes: “This exceeds the long term annual average of fatalities caused by bush fires, floods, cyclones and sharks combined.” This suggests, interestingly, an attitude of ambivalence towards rip hazards in Australia compared to shark attacks and bushfires which receive significant media attention and government funding commitments for developing interventions. Perhaps, as Brandon argues,  this is motivated by the fact that “rip currents are always present and rarely result in more than one fatality at a time”.

‘Beach Safe’ Guidelines

Check out Surf Lifesaving Australia’s BeachSafe website. Here, you will find an excellent summary of rip currents, one of the best overviews I have come across. There are super diagrams and video clips illustrating the different types of rip currents – from fixed to flash to mega rips – along with tips on the tell-tale signs to watch out for before entering the water.

The University of New South Wales (UNSW) and Life Saving Australia are undertaking collaborative research to better understand the phenomena of rip currents, escape strategies and how to best educate people about them.

What is clear is that:

  • The calm area on the beach is not always the safest place for you to swim
  • Rip currents will not suck you out into the nethers of the deep, dark ocean

Rip Current Survival

Water behaviour can be unpredictable and the nature of rip currents can be quite different across geographic locations. Research has also shown that people’s experiences of rip currents vary considerably.  Brander therefore cautions: “No single message is suitable for advising people how to react or to escape when caught in a rip current.”  

A combination of floating, swimming and staying calm are key ingredients of any escape strategy.

Life Saving Australia’s current advice is as follows:

If you get caught in a rip current, you need to know your options:
1. For assistance, stay calm, float and raise an arm to attract attention.
2. While floating, rip currents may flow in a circular pattern and return you to an adjacent sandbar.
3. You may escape the rip current by swimming parallel to the beach, towards the breaking waves.
4. You should regularly assess your situation. If your response is ineffective, you may need to adopt an alternative such as staying calm, floating and raising an arm to attract attention.
Information and illustration from Beach Safe:

Science of the Surf

If you are keen to learn more about rips and water safety, I highly recommend the website, Science of the Surf (SoS) which was founded by Rob Brander.

An educational program for beach and surf safety, the aims of SOS are to reduce the number of drownings and injuries on our beaches.

The SoS rip current time lapse footage, with purple dye, is pretty spectacular.

Heart Health and Water safety

Another interesting fact emerged from the Royal Life Saving Society of Australia’s ‘National Drowning Report 2015’.  Of the people who drowned, 51 (19%) had an underlying medical condition and the pre-existing medical condition was found to have contributed towards the drowning in 36 of these cases (71%).  

The most common conditions were cardiac conditions (including hypertension, ischaemic heart disease, coronary artery atherosclerosis).

These stats, along with the fact that the 45-54 years age group was the most impacted by drowning deaths and that 89 (33%) of the total drowning deaths occurred in people aged 55 years and over in 2014/15, have Royal Life Saving issuing some clear recommendations.

Some of these recommendations are:

Know your limitations: Older people need to be aware of changes in personal fitness and skills in their older years, especially if they haven’t regularly maintained water-based activities.

Be aware of medical conditions: Have regular medical check-ups, as medical conditions and medications can affect your abilities in the water.

Avoid alcohol around water: This seems fairly obvious. Additionally, people in the older age groups are more likely than their younger counterparts to be on long-term medication and are often unaware of the detrimental effects of combining alcohol with their medications.

Ease your way back into aquatic activity:  Royal Life Saving Australia runs a Grey Medallion Program, which is a fabulous way to ease older people back into aquatic activity. Check it out!

Author: Kara Gilbert @ KMG


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