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Beach and Coastal Safety - A few simple rules

Find out about the beach and tide times before you enter the sea

A red and yellow flag indicates the area patrolled by lifeguards

A red flag indicates conditions are too dangerous for bathing (but not necessarily for other sports)

A black and white quartered flag indicates the area for surfing and other sports

I have included plenty of local information about the beaches on this site. Alternatively, ask the lifeguards.
Swim within your ability
If you're not a strong swimmer or not used to sea swimming, go to a lifeguarded beach. The red and yellow flags indicate the area patrolled by lifeguards, and this is the safest place to swim. A red flag means conditions are too dangerous for swimming, whilst a black and white quartered flag marks an area for non-powered water craft.
Note that lifeguards have to train regularly - this is done before or after their shift. Their usual duty times are from 10 am to 6 pm. If you're on the beach outside these times, lifeguards may be training. Although they will obviously repond to any incident they are aware of, they will not be actively scanning the sea area and the red / yellow flags will not be displayed.
Swim where and when it's safe
Lifeguarded beaches are the safest places to swim, and the high tide period is generally the safest time. Deeply indented bays are usually safe, as are long straight sandy shores away from river estuaries, although there may be a cross current on these. If the beach has a cross current, beware of any rocks or structures which may obstruct this, and force the water out to sea. Steeply sloping sand usually indicates fast currents, and undulations in the sand are often the result of rips.
Take care with inflatables
Check the wind speed and direction before using inflatables in the sea. Never use them if the wind is strong or blowing offshore.
Don't sit under cliffs
Always keep a safe distance in case of rock falls
Supervise young children
Don't let them enter the water or wander off by themselves, especially on busy beaches. Much of a lifeguard's time is spent searching for lost children.
Take care not to get cut off by the tide
Places you're likely to get cut off include:
  • Bays or long stretches of coast backed by high cliffs
  • Causeways
  • Sandbars
If you venture into such places be sure you know the tide times and which way the tide is going. Large sandbars are usually a maze of banks and water channels, with these channels quickly filling and widening on the incoming tide.
Beware of currents
Rip currents Rip currents at Monkstone
A rip current is defined as water flowing out to sea. These can be recognised by an area of calmer water in breaking waves, and discoloration caused by sand being picked up off the bottom. They are rarely very wide, and if caught in one you should swim across it, not against it.
Rips and other strong currents can occur :
  • Near points, headlands and harbour walls
  • Between islands and the mainland
  • On beaches in the vicinity of a strong tidal flow
  • Near river estuaries
  • In surf conditions, particularly on steeply shelving beaches
Don't dig deep or tunnel into sand
Sand is unstable and very heavy. Tunnels will collapse without warning.
Jumping / diving from rocks
Have fun, but be cautious:
  • Always check the water below regularly for depth, obstructions and currents. The Bristol Channel has the second highest tidal range in the world, and at mid tide, the water depth can drop by a foot in 10 minutes.
  • Don't do it where you have to jump outwards to avoid an obstruction
  • Don't jump from heights you're not comfortable with
Look out for adders on dunes and coast paths
Adder Adder at Ynyslas, Ceredigion
Adders can often be seen on dunes and coastal paths. They are Britain's only poisonous snake and are easily identified by a zig-zag stripe along their back. This camouflages them well against a stony background. Away from the beach, wear proper shoes, never put your hand into rock crevices and be careful if walking through heather.

There are about 100 incidents of adder bites per year in Britain, and in the very unlikely event of being bitten, you need to get to A&E as quickly as possible - by ambulance if necessary. Also, remove any bracelets or watches which could cause problems when the affected part swells up. The only other snake you're likely to see is the (harmless) grass snake, which has distinctive yellow markings behind its head.
The beaches along the Bristol Channel, particularly those near to river estuaries (Jersey Marine, Swansea Bay, Llanelli), often have thick mud on the lower shore. Should you find yourself sinking, try to go back the way you came. If the mud rises over your shoes, take them off.
On Welsh beaches it is unlikely you will find enough mud to get into serious difficulty, but if you really do start sinking, then spread your weight by crawling or lying down and rolling yourself out.
Read local signage - but beware of overkill
At one time, obeying local signage would have been good advice, but in these days of over-zealous Health and Safety officials, you need to decide for yourself whether warning signs are worth taking notice of. Obviously most of them are, but some go over the top.
If you see someone in difficulty . . .
OverkillIdiotic, irresponsible advice from the RNLI
  OverkillUseful, practical advice on a rescue aid
The RNLI state in their leaflets that you should never attempt a rescue. Such blanket advice is not only stupid and irresponsible, but totally contradicts the advice given on items of rescue equipment located at beaches and harbours. It also goes against what the RLSS (Royal Life Saving Society) have been teaching for decades. The RNLI would be well advised to stick to life-boats and leave shore rescues to organisations who know what they're talking about.
So what should you do?
Firstly, if there are lifeguards around, tell them; they're the experts who'll know what to do. Otherwise :
  • Reaching Rescues

    If it's possible to perform a rescue without putting yourself in danger (e.g. throwing a rope or lifebelt) then that's the obvious action, although the RNLI advise against this. However bear in mind a panicking casualty will pull hard on any rope, so be sure you can't get pulled in yourself.

  • Deep water swimming rescues

    Firstly : stop and assess the situation, and if possible get someone to phone the coastguard. Deep water rescues are risky and there are many variables to consider, but as a general rule they should only be attempted if you are suitably trained AND have an item of rescue equipment available (e.g. rescue board, torpedo buoy). You should not get within 12 feet of a casualty unless you have something unsinkable between you, or you have passed a rescue aid and the casualty is calm. Don't think that because you've done a 25 metre tow in a swimming pool you can rescue a panicking swimmer from deep water! Phone the coastguard instead.