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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 respond 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.
Don't dig deep or tunnel into sand
Sand is unstable and very heavy. Tunnels will collapse without warning.
Tidal Crossings - Causeways & Sandbars
Causeway Causeway to St Margaret's
Causeways generally come with dire warnings of the dangers of being cut off, and most have seen a few drownings over the years. When they do cut off, the currents across them can be strong.
Sandbars can stretch for considerable distances from the shore, and on a rising tide channels in them quickly fill and widen. If venturing into such places, be sure you know the tide times, look out for where the cut-off points are and allow plenty of time for your return. Tidal Crossings in Wales are at Sully Island (Swanbridge), Worm's Head (Rhossili), St Margaret's Island (Pembrokeshire) and Ynys Gifftan (Gwynedd).
Jumping / diving from rocks
Have fun, but be cautious:
  • Always check the water below regularly for depth, obstructions and currents. On Bristol Channel coasts, the water depth can decrease 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, and never from higher than 30 feet (about 10 metres).
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 (pictured) are just farcicle.
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
Read the Sand
Types of sand
The state of the sand can reveal much about the beach.
[1] Flat sand occurs when the backwash from waves runs back quickly - either because of surf or because the sand has some gradient.
[2] Rippled sand occurs when the water flows back slowly, when the beach has very little gradient.
[3] Steeply sloping sand usually occurs at river estuaries, and indicates strong currents.
[4] Uneven sand, with depressions or sand puddles indicates currents. Deep channels running seaward are usually caused by rips. Avoid swimming if you see this.
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. Mud has a high specific gravity (about 1.7), so you won't sink under it.
On Welsh beaches it is unlikely you will find enough mud to get into serious difficulty, but if you start sinking deep, spread your weight by crawling or lying down and rolling yourself out.
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.
If you see someone in difficulty . . .
OverkillAdvice on how to save someone in difficulty . . Overkill. . but the RNLI say don't do it
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 lifeboats and leave Beach Safety to organisations who know what they're talking about.

So what should you do?
  • If there are lifeguards around, tell them; they're the experts who'll know what to do and take appropriate action. 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 say you shouldn't even do this. If such items aren't available, then anything with buoyancy is better than nothing. However bear in mind a panicking casualty will pull hard on any rope, so be sure you can't get pulled into deep water 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 approach 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!

  • Look around - can anyone else help?

    Surfers and kayakers are usually confident in most water conditions and may be able to help.

  • If all else fails, phone the coastguard!