How To Survive an Australian Beach Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

How To Survive an Australian Beach

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a hand buried in golden sands.

The first cold winds of winter whistle outside the doors and windows of Northern Hemisphere homes and inhabitants' thoughts turn to warmer climes and perhaps that long-planned trip Down Under. Everything is in readiness: plane tickets, accommodation, itinerary, visas, passports and luggage that includes swimsuits, board shorts, beach towels and sun creams. As the plane nears Australia, the eager tourists picture the warm sands and crashing surf that they will soon experience. They arrive at their beach of choice, only to find a large crowd there already, and so they choose a less hectic section of the beach from which to enjoy their first taste of Aussie surf. A quick application of sun lotion and into the water they go...

For an increasing number of tourists and visitors from afar and for denizens of inland areas of Australia, this is all they remember of their holiday up until their awakening in a hospital bed. They are the lucky ones, as many simply never awaken or are never seen or heard of again. They are a regular feature in the Australian media for all the wrong reasons. In popular tourist Meccas like Sydney's Bondi Beach and the sun-soaked sands of the Queensland Gold Coast, unsuspecting beachgoers from overseas regularly die from drowning due to their ignorance of Australian beach conditions. Picture-postcard beaches coupled with a visitor's pent-up expectations and excitement can be the ingredients for potential tragedy. Australian beaches cover a wide spectrum of coastal conditions that can be found in other parts of the world, but the beaches that attract the international visitor are the surf beaches and these are the biggest killer of the unwary visitor.

Reading a Beach

To understand how a beach works, how the moon and meteorological conditions influence tides and how they in turn affect the beach can be the study of a lifetime. Reading a beach is a difficult assignment for all but seasoned regulars who use the beach on a weekly, sometimes daily, basis. The term 'reading a beach' refers to a person's understanding of the many concurrent conditions at the time that they are observing a beach. There are also professionals whose job it is to know these things. They are known as surf lifesavers - there are approximately twenty-two thousand registered surf lifesavers that patrol Australian beaches at peak periods of the year.

Rip Currents

The greatest danger to any swimmer on a surf beach is the current that is known as a 'rip'. It is caused when a channel forms between the beach shore and a sandbar further out. It is often recognised through signs of sand-coloured or rippled water running out to sea in a clearly-defined channel. This channel can cut straight through sets of waves and cause a break in long, clean lines of waves. The waves may be breaking further out to sea on both sides of the rip. Furthermore, if there is any foam or flotsam and jetsam on the water, this will be seen to be floating out to sea in one area, sometimes at a rapid rate. Remember that these are visual indicators: you wouldn't speed up if you were driving around a bend and noticed water running across the road or the sun was directly in your eyes! You would approach with caution and drive in a manner suitable to the prevailing conditions. Apply this cautionary thinking to when you are in the surf as well.

Types of Rips

  • Permanent rips can be caused by coastal fixtures that are permanent, like wharves, piers, outcrops of rocks or bommies1, as well as the contours of the ocean floor.

  • Fixed rips, as the name suggests, can last for a few hours or even several months. These are felt by the swimmer as a deepening of the water as you wade out, accompanied by a current that pulls and tugs at the swimmer. The floor of the beach is not a gradual slope in these situations, but quite often a gutter or a series of holes that range in depth.

  • Flash rips appear suddenly, usually without warning. They are caused by a large build-up of surf in a short period of time. This can happen when the weather conditions are changing for the worse, as a result of storm periods that have passed or if the beach is experiencing a tidal change.

  • Travelling rips can constantly move along a beach propelled by a strong current from the shore.

Patrolled Beaches

These are easily identified - in addition to signs indicating that the area is a patrolled beach, the beachgoer will see two flags on long poles placed in the sand at a distance apart from each other, coloured red and yellow. On these beaches, a tourist's choice of swimming spots is as simple as this:

swim only between the flags at all times.

That message will also be on signs placed along the foreshore by local councils. The surf lifesavers have reckoned that the area between the flags is the safest and easiest to patrol. The positioning will also represent the area with the least amount of rip activity, although even the most popular and safest beaches are closed some days because of treacherous conditions and only the foolhardy enter at these times. The distances between the flags will often vary from day to day and sometimes even from hour to hour. The reason for this is the changing nature of surf conditions. Lifesavers are trained to recognise these and will also regularly swim this area to check for changed conditions. If they deem it necessary, they will reposition the flags accordingly or even close the beach. Some beaches will have areas outside the red and yellow flagged areas that are marked with blue flags; within these areas the use of fibreglass boards2 is prohibited, although foamboards and plastic kickboards can be used. Again, the swimmer would be well advised not to enter any beach area where board riders are active, as a surfboard (even a riderless one) can be propelled at dangerous speeds, which constitutes a lethal danger.

Things to Remember

There are a number of simple things that will assist you in staying out of trouble.

Don't swim straight after a meal and don't run and dive into the waves, as this can and does lead to swimmers suffering various degrees of spinal injury if they crash into shallow sand banks. Waves along the beach shore3 can be dangerous if they rear up suddenly and then break. These waves are known as 'dumpers' and can be frightening in their intensity and sheer strength. The prevailing local weather and tidal conditions should be taken into account when planning a day at the beach, as it is these things which will cause changes to a beach.

If you are ever in doubt as to the best way to act, ask at the local Surf Lifesaving Club (SLC). The SLC is also the place to find out all you need to know about any facet of beach safety. It's an old truism that you can never trust the sea and it is never more so than on a perfect sunny day at an Australian beach. If there is one piece of advice that will save your life while swimming at the beach it is to swim between the flags. This simple instruction has meant that no life has ever been lost at a patrolled beach area in the State of Victoria.

Don't Panic!

This phrase has been used as a warning while undertaking many different and varied activities in life. It has also been used for decades in conjunction with Australian surf safety campaigns. An Australian child is brought up to the maxims 'Swim between the flags!', 'Don't Panic!', 'Wave your arm if in trouble!' and 'Never ignore a lifeguard's directive!' Tourists would be well advised to do the same.

Being caught in a rip is the cause of most beach drownings in Australia. When a rip does grasp the unwary swimmer, as stated before, don't panic and don't fight it. Just remain afloat and it will take you out to or beyond the breaking waves zone. Try not to think about things like sharks, stinging jellyfish or any other nasties of the deep. If you are sucked out by a rip and manage to control the urge to panic, just raise an arm and wave. If you have strength aplenty, then it is usually just a matter of swimming with the current and catching waves back into shore.

The number-one best thing that a visitor can do while in difficulty in the water is to raise one arm and wave it about. This is the recognised sign of a swimmer or surfer in trouble in all Australian waters - remember this simple thing and you will have a much better chance of survival. All lifeguards are trained to recognise a swimmer in trouble, even one who is weakened and just able to raise their arm. At many of the large, popular beaches, the lifesavers have inflatable boats with powerful outboard motors and they can be at a distressed swimmer's side in a very short time. They can then be brought back to shore, where trained people with medical equipment are ready to resuscitate them and call for further aid if necessary.

Where the dangers for your average tourist begin is when they swim at unpatrolled beaches or outside of the flagged areas. Swimming at night is also a surefire way to become a statistic. An easy trap for the tourist to fall into is to move away from the busy flagged area of a beach in search of a less crowded spot. This is yet another way to potentially become a statistic. The great majority of deaths occur outside the flagged areas at beaches. The further away you are from the patrolled area, the smaller your chance of rescue or resuscitation.

Tragedy and Drowning

New Year's Eve celebrations and Christmas parties at popular coastal beaches usually account for some near drownings and the odd death. These quite often are the result of a common recipe for disaster at more than just beaches. Mix alcohol with sheer youthful exuberance, add some testosterone and throw in a dash of 'why not?' and you have your basic ingredients for a possible tragedy. Statistics show that males are four times more likely to drown than females and that the age group most affected is those aged 15 - 34.

Statistics from The Medical Journal of Australia highlight the risks for tourists and new migrants when they take to the water in Australia:

  • 88 tourists from 12 countries drowned in Australia during 1992 - 1997 (age range 3 - 78 years; 72 male and 16 female).

  • 73 of the above tourists drowned in non-boating incidents, five in boating incidents and 10 in unspecified circumstances.

  • 38 tourists came from Europe (15 from the United Kingdom, ten from Germany), 35 from Asia (17 from Japan), seven from the United States and eight from other countries.

  • 89% drowned in the ocean and 11% drowned in fresh water. 61% drowned at surfing beaches or elsewhere in the 'ocean' and a further 24% drowned while scuba diving or snorkelling.

  • Tourist drownings made up 4.7% of non-boating drownings, 18% of surf and ocean drownings, 25% of scuba and snorkelling drownings and 1.6% of boating drownings.

Recent news articles in the Australian press highlight the dangers faced by tourists while swimming or even just resting on the sands and enjoying the sights. A 25-year-old male Indian tourist swimming at one of Sydney's popular beaches drowned while the area was experiencing extreme coastal conditions: great surf for board riders, but often suicidal conditions for swimmers with no experience of big surf beaches. Sixty other swimmers were swept out to sea as a result of a strong rip; all were rescued by lifesavers except this unfortunate young man. Even if you are not a swimmer but are just doing the tourist thing and visiting popular beaches, it still helps if you can recognise a swimmer in trouble. A very recent tragedy on the Far North Coast of New South Wales4 occurred when a visiting English lady, sitting on a towel in the sun, was looking out at the surf area when she saw two people waving. She waved back and proceeded to watch these people wave for a few more times and then slowly took in the fact that they were not waving to her but were in some kind of trouble. The poor woman had mistook what she thought were strangers waving to her for an elderly sister and brother who had been sucked out by a rip and consequently drowned before help was able to be directed to them. Ambulance officers consoled the now distraught English tourist and one can only sympathise with her in her grief. Events like this may have been avoided if this tourist had been made aware of the dangers involved and the appropriate responses to them.

Nobody heard him, the dead man,
But still he lay moaning;
I was much further out than you thought
And not waving but drowning.

- Stevie Smith (1902 - 1971), poet and author

Airports, the arrival points for the vast majority of tourists and visitors to Australia, will sometimes have information from local authorities about beach protocol, but don't rely on it! Remember that this is a foreign country with totally different beaches and seas and your average European resident is more than likely to have never encountered its likes before.

Some important safety points that cannot be emphasised enough include:

  • Always swim or surf at places patrolled by lifesavers or lifeguards.

  • Swim between the red and yellow flags. They mark the safer area for swimming.

  • If you are unsure of surf conditions, ask a lifesaver.

  • Don't swim under the influence of alcohol or drugs.

  • Never run or dive in the water, even if you have checked before, because water conditions can change.

  • If you get into trouble in the water, stay calm. Signal for help, float and wait for assistance.

  • Learn how to spot a rip and keep clear of it.

1An Australian term meaning groups of rocks or boulders that usually only show their heads at low tides.2Known to some as surfboards.3Known as the shorebreak.4An area home to some of the most popular surf beaches in the world.

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