On Beach Safety
Back when my youngest son Scott was around 10, he played on a traveling soccer team. One game happened to be in Savannah, I believe in November. We hit the road, Scott and I, heading for soccer glory in a driving rain storm.
We reached Savannah - still raining. We drove to the field - raining hard. But just as we met with Scott's teammates to start the game, the rain quit, totally.
We played the entire 2 hour match without a drop of rain. Scott scored his first Classic level goal, from a corner kick.
After the game, the teams shook hands, we headed for our cars - and the rains came back with a vengeance.
A Jekyll Island Time-out
Scott and I drove downtown, intent on spending a little time exploring Old Savannah, but it was raining so hard we couldn't leave the car without getting soaked. So we decided to drive 80 miles south and have us a mini Jekyll Island adventure.
As you might imagine, it rained the whole way. When we arrived, we drove around listlessly, knowing we only had a few hours before we had to head home to school and work and everyday life. The deluge didn't help our mood much, either.
We wound up at the beach. We parked in the public parking lot at Central Dunes, grabbed our umbrellas, and headed for the sand.
Only there wasn't any. The beach was gone, submerged by a massive storm surge that topped the breakwater boulders and forced us to stand well back from the angry spray.
This was Jekyll Island as we'd never seen it before, the ocean angry and aggressive, it's raw power never more apparent. I remember standing there, bummed out, fighting the wind and my overwhelmed umbrella, longing for the sun - and realizing just how powerful the Atlantic Ocean could be.
And how dangerous.
What's all that got to do with beach safety?
Most vacationers seldom see the ocean like that - raging, the gloves off. At Jekyll Island, we're used to the placid waters and gentle waves of the gently sloping Eastern Seaboard. That slope absorbs a lot of the energy from the outer ocean waves.
When the storms come, even off-shore, the ocean can turn dangerous. At these times we're very much aware of our frailty. The danger is right there, in front of us. Beach safety becomes more than just an abstract concept.
Even in quiet times, however, when the sun is out and the sea is a flat, placid plain, the beach can be dangerous. But by preparing well and adhering to safe beach practices, we can protect ourselves - and our kids - and enjoy the peace and beauty of the beach.
Prepare Well -
Swimmer, know thyself.
The first tenet of beach safety - know how to swim before you go to the beach- duh! - and make sure your kids know how, too.
Most communities offer swimming lessons through the YMCA or other organizations. Take advantage of these programs, and learn all you can. Try to pick up some life-saving skills while you're at it.
Then practice. Swim all you can. Strengthen your muscles. And get in some time in the wave pool at your local water park - swimming in ocean waves is entirely different than paddling around in a swimming pool.
Beach safety requires a totally new mindset, so while you're at it, take a Red Cross approved life-saving course, one that offers basic CPR and cardiac resuscitation.
Now that you're better equipped to take on the beach, you need to be aware of the main dangers you might encounter - rip currents, sharks, jelly fish, water quality, and sun exposure.
General Beach Safety Tips -
These beach safety tips are no-brainers.
Don't swim alone, and make sure you keep your kids in sight at all times. Waves come ashore at an angle and over time kids playing in the surf will gradually be pushed down the beach, sometimes without their even knowing it.
Soon they may be out of your sight line, especially if you're dozing or caught up in the latest thriller. So be aware. Train yourself to look up periodically.
Having others around who are also looking after the kids helps. All grownups and teens in your party should know that watching the younger kids is a first priority for beach safety.
Don't SUI - Swim Under the Influence. Alcohol lowers body temperature, can impair your judgment and swimming ability, and cause you to take risks you would normally avoid.
And if you're on a float, make sure you don't get farther out than you can swim back. It's also a good idea to attach a leash to your float, boogie board or surf toy. If you fall off, it won't get swept away from you.
Rip Currents and Beach Safety -
We've all observed waves and surf breaking on the beach. As the power of the surf dissipates, the water is pulled back out to sea by gravity. This is not usually dangerous - we've all stood in the surf, giggling as the receding water sucked the sand from around our feet and tickled our toes. However...
If there is an underwater obstruction parallel to the beach, like a submerged sandbar, water may pile up on the shore-side of this obstruction. There's a tremendous amount of stored energy in this water. And if the sandbar is breached in a spot, the water may be pulled from the reservoir in a concentrated stream flowing seaward - sometimes as fast as 8 feet per second. This is a recipe for disaster.
Rip currents can also form off objects perpendicular or angular to the beach, like jetties, piers, or the Jekyll Island sandbar.
The United States Life-saving Association (USLA) states that 80% of lifeguard rescues at ocean beaches occur when folks are caught in rip currents. They also cause 80% of drowning deaths.
And rip currents can occur in relatively placid water conditions. They're just more intense as surf size increases.
Learning how to cope with rip currents is critical for your family's beach safety.
Prepare for Rip Currents -
There's no getting around the fact that rip currents are out there, and are usually difficult to detect. But they can be avoided or prepared for.
First, try to swim where there are certified lifeguards stationed and on-duty. That's not always the case, and at Jekyll Island there are no lifeguards - you swim at your own risk.
That's an important realization, so make sure you understand it, and take it to heart. It's worth repeating:
You swim at your own risk!
Your safety is in your hands. As is your kids.
If you spot an area of choppy, churning water, a strange break in on-coming waves, a spot where the water seems discolored, or see seaweed or other debris moving seaward, there might be a rip current present. Beach safety is paramount - swim somewhere else.
If you get caught in a rip current, all is not lost. Keep your head and you can get out of it fairly easily.
Rip currents are usually not very wide, so if you swim to one side or the other you can break free of the surge. Trying to power-swim straight back to shore is a losing proposition. You'll just wear yourself out, weaken - and still be caught in the */#&!! rip current!
If you do get too tired to keep swimming, tread water. The rip current usually dissipates just past the breaking wave line. The feeling of being pulled out to sea can be frightening, but once past that line you may be able to swim free and get back to shore.
If you're still too tired to make it, tread water and raise your arms over your head to signal folks ashore that you're in trouble.
It bears repeating. When someone's in the water, others who care about that person should act as spotters, and keep an eye out. Total beach safety demands it.
When we were young and dumb (and by young and dumb I mean teenagers), we'd think nothing of wading into chest-high water off the Jekyll Island coast. The water was warm, and we'd hangout in groups, usually us guys and a few girls, and shoot the bull, enjoying the rise and fall of the long swells as they arrived from somewhere off the African coast.
That was before the movie Jaws came out. After that, beach safety as it pertains to sharks wasn't a problem - it was nearly impossible to get us in the water.
In reality, sharks aren't much of a danger. For one thing, they're rare. According to the International Shark Attack File, there's only 50 to 70 reports of shark bites world-wide annually.
They say you're more likely to be injured in a car wreck on the way to the beach than to even see a shark. Further, even the attacks that do happen are thought to be cases of mistaken identity - shark thinks you're prey, bites, says "Yukkk!", and spits you out.
To make doubly sure you're not subject to a shark's taste test, there are a few precautions you can take.
Don't wear shiny jewelry. Don't swim at dusk or night. And don't dress up like a seal.
Or do like me - don't get in over your knees.
Jelly Fish -
Jelly fish sometimes come ashore on Jekyll Island. There may even be times when jellies are off-shore in enough numbers to cause a nuisance. It's best to check with the Visitor's Center to see if jellies (or other problems) exist on a beach before getting in the water. It's good beach safety practice.
If jelly fish are present, they're usually not life-threatening. Their stings are painful, but not deadly. Avoid them if they wash ashore, and stay out of the water if they're present.
Water Quality -
Community health departments sometimes close beaches due to water quality problems like bacteria or pollutants. Under Federal regulations, the communities are required to do regular testing - public beach safety demands it.
If a section of beach fails the test, the community puts up signs saying the beach is closed until further notice.
If no signs are present, the beach is usually safe as far as water quality is concerned. You might want to think twice, however, just after a heavy rain, when it's possible that pollutants like fertilizers could have been washed into the water.
Sun Exposure -
Here's a lesson I learned about beach safety (as applied to sun exposure) from the School of Hard Knocks (when I was that young and dumb teenager).
Don't go to the beach when you're white as the underbelly of a beached whale.
Don't stay out in the sun without sun block.
Then, once you've been cooked to a fiery, well-broiled red, don't put sunburn salve on your poor feet, then wear sandals, and then walk in the sand. That is, if you don't like the feel of sandpaper slowly scraping the flesh from your feet.
Sunburn is one risk of being in the sun too long. A more serious one is the chance of developing skin cancer. It's been shown that over exposure prior to the age of 18 significantly increases the risk of skin cancer later in life.
Sunlight is more intense between 10 am and 3 pm, so make sure you (and the kids, especially) wear a sun block with titanium dioxide or zinc oxide in it. These products block both UVA and UVB rays. Use one with an SPF factor of 15 or greater. If you're swimming or sweating (hey, who doesn't on the beach?), re-apply the stuff every 2 hours.
Proper beach wear can reap benefits, too. Wide-brim hats are effective at generating shade and shielding sensitive facial skin from harsh ultra-violet rays. Light-weight, long sleeve shirts and deck pants serve to protect the rest of your body. And you can get sunglasses with protection built directly into the lenses.
And...police the kids! They're too busy playing to worry about beach safety thingies!
These are the common dangers you might face on the beach, but don't worry overmuch about beach safety. With a little education, preparation, and common sense, you can defuse these situations before they occur, and enjoy your Jekyll Island Family Adventures to the utmost.
Here's to the four "S's" of summer fun - sun, surf, sand - and beach safety!
"The fishermen know that the sea is dangerous and the storm is terrible, but they have never found these dangers sufficient reason for remaining ashore." - Vincent van Gogh