Respect the Water

By Peter Barnard MBE
Skegness RNLI Coastal Safety Officer

Coastal fatality figures recently released reveal that 167 people lost their lives at the coast in 2013; the highest number in four years. The number of near misses was even higher, with the RNLI's UK lifeboat crews and lifeguards saving 368 lives.

The charity has launched a major drowning awareness campaign, Respect the Water, warning people to stay safe in and around water.


Rugby star James Haskell launches the RNLI Respect the Water campaign. (Photo: RNLI)
Rugby star James Haskell launches the RNLI Respect the Water campaign. Read more on
(Photo: RNLI)

An average of 160 people die at the coast each year that's more than the number killed in cycling accidents which was 109 in 2013. The RNLI is aiming to halve the number of accidental coastal deaths by 2024.

In total 640 people have died around the UK coast over the past four years. The fatality figures shows a clear gender divide, with adult men accounting for over two-thirds (68%) of these deaths.

Many would assume adrenaline sports and rough weather are the biggest cause of incidents but, in fact, it's casual every day use of the coast and sea which often results in fatalities. Swimming and general leisure use of the water accounts for 20% of last year's coastal deaths.

Kayaking photo. (Photo: RNLI)

Cold water shock is frequently thought to be a contributing factor. Despite warm summer air temperatures, the UK sea temperature is cold enough year round to trigger cold water shock the average UK sea temperature is just 12 degrees, but cold water shock can set in at any temperature below 15 degrees.

It causes uncontrollable gasping, which draws water into the lungs and can lead to drowning. The RNLI is warning people to be aware of the effects of cold water and to acclimatise gradually when getting into the water.

Scuba Diving photo. (Photo: RNLI)

Other common factors are rip currents and fatigue. Rip currents consistently account for two-thirds of the environmental-related incidents; over 1000 people are rescued each year by RNLI Lifeguards.

Swimming between the red and yellow flags is the best way to stay safe. However, if you are caught in a rip or strong current, always obey the three R's:

Relax: Stay calm and float. Do not swim against the current, swim parallel to the shore to escape it.

Raise: Raise an arm to signal for help. If possible shout to the shore.

Rescue: Float and wait for assistance. Don't panic, and obey Lifeguard directions.

If you think you are able to swim, swim parallel to the beach towards the breaking waves. When you're out of the effects of the rip, make you way towards the shore. If you can wade rather than swim, do so.

Surfing photo. (Photo: RNLI)

But it's not only water-based activities which put people in danger. Slips, trips and falls while walking or running are a major issue, accounting for 32% of last year's coastal deaths. 

Alcohol consumption is also a contributing factor in around one-fifth of deaths, with 28 (17%) of the fatalities last year involving alcohol. The majority of these are men, who accounted for 23 of the 28 alcohol-related fatalities last year.

Ross Macleod, the RNLI's Coastal Safety Manager, says: "With more people losing their lives on the coast each year than are killed in cycling accidents, we're trying to make people, particularly men, realise that they are at risk from drowning if they don't follow some basic but important safety advice. We want people to go to the coast and enjoy it we're lucky to have an exceptional coastline around the UK but we want them to understand there are risks, and they should not underestimate the power of the sea."

Fishing photo. (Photo: RNLI)

Ross adds: "Our key advice is to choose a lifeguarded beach and swim between the red and yellow flags, where you'll have professional lifeguards looking after you. If you want a few drinks in the sun on the beach, remember alcohol and water doesn't mix, so drink after swimming, not before. 

"Remember that, despite warm air temperatures, the UK sea temperature is cold enough year-round to trigger cold water shock, so acclimatise gradually in shallow water. Don't over-estimate your ability- the sea is a very different environment to a pool and even the strongest swimmer can tire quickly. If you get caught in a rip current, don't panic or try to swim against it; swim parallel to the shore until you're free. To avoid falls, stay away from cliff edges, stick to pathways and read the safety signs."

This article is written by using various statistics and information, including articles written by others, obtained from RNLI sources. All photos credit: RNLI. For further information about the campaign, visit the Respect the Water pages or contact Coastal Safety Officer Peter Barnard.

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