Americans are expected to flock to beaches to celebrate the Fourth of July holiday weekend, but travelers should be extra vigilant of their surroundings this year.
A national lifeguard shortage means many beaches will be unguarded.
Below are several tips about what to pay attention to before and during your trip to keep you and your loved ones safe.
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Look at wave conditions before you go
Beach safety begins before you get to the beach.
One of the things to “know before you go,” according to Eric Gietzen, chief lifeguard at Coastline Services in Wisconsin, is how the forecast is going to affect the water.
Beyond looking for rain or storms in the forecast, look at the wave conditions, which can be worse than the weather might indicate.
The most detailed, current information is available at the National Weather Service.
When looking at the forecast, Gietzen said to pay attention to winds in the double-digits in either knots or miles per hour. Winds in the upper teens can be dangerous.
Know how dangerous rip currents work — and how to avoid them
Rip currents, often incorrectly called “rip tides,” are jets of water coming out perpendicular to the shore. The water that comes into the shore needs to go back out to sea eventually, and the “going back” motion sometimes creates dangerous rip currents.
The water creates these fast-moving currents wherever it can find the path of least resistance. When the beach is narrow or has obstructions like a sand bar or pier, the rip currents get more dangerous.
No one should dive off of a jetty, pier or any structure on the side of a beach. Even when the water is calm, rip currents often dig along these structures, creating high-speed currents that can either dash a person into the structure or bring them into open water.
When there are waves, they bounce off the break wall or rocky structure, creating what Adam Abajian — co-chair of the Great Lakes Water Safety Consortium Lifeguarding and Beach Rescue Committee — calls a “washing machine effect” that no one wants to get stuck in.
Experts also say to never attempt to outswim a rip current and instead recommend swimming parallel to shore to escape the current. The streams of water flowing away from the beach are relatively narrow and generally are relatively short. If you can swim out of the narrow band of fast-moving water or can float until the current slows down, you can easily swim back to shore or get help. But if you spend all of your energy trying to fight the current, you will get tired and may have trouble staying above the waves.
What to take to the beach
The Milwaukee Beach Ambassadors say that your beach items kit should include
- Hoodies or coverups. On a day that turns windy, people can get hypothermia after they get out of the water.
- Drinking water to prevent dehydration
- First-aid kit. Any open wounds gained in the water are exposed to all sorts of lake bacteria.
- If you have one, life preservers or life jackets. If you bring it, wear it — if you get blown away without one, it’s already too late.
Leave the floaties at home
It’s very easy for the wind and waves to push someone on an inflatable, especially a high-profile one, out to sea at a rate faster than a person can swim.
So, save the fun inflatable unicorns and swans for a pool or inland lake.
“If you’re in a pool, cool, but open water, no,” said Lloyd Seawright II, an adviser with the Beach Ambassadors.
Inflatables, unlike life jackets and actual boats, are not tested or approved as flotation devices. They can also give a false sense of security. Kids can fall through inner tubes and inflatables can deflate.
“If your flotation can be sunk with a pen, it might not be a viable item,” Abajian said.
Likewise, water wing-style arm floaties for kids aren’t the best, either. Kids can slip out of them and have little upper body strength that would allow them to actually stay above water.
There are Coast Guard-approved toddler life jackets that are better options, said Abajian, but “the best thing to do when you have a small, small child is to hold them. (It) gives you an excuse to play in the water; take it.”
Have a plan when you get to the beach
The country is facing a lifeguard shortage this year. If you cannot get to a guarded beach, Abajian said, have someone dedicated to watching people in the water, akin to a designated driver. Adults should have swim buddies as well.
“I have three kids. It’s really easy to get distracted by the one kid that needs something, and your other kid gets in trouble, and that happens in a store!” Abajian said. “So on the waterfront? If you can’t be within arm’s distance of your child, there’s no way to guarantee their safety. And I (will) point out that adults drown, too.”
Know your abilities
Know where the bottom of the lake gets too deep for you and do not go beyond your comfort zone. The water can get overwhelming very quickly; do not chase a beach ball or try to keep up with friends who have stronger swimming abilities.
People should be very honest with themselves about what they can handle.