I took The Long Paddle, a mammoth endurance adventure, to set some world records but mainly to highlight water safety on the island nation we call Britain. In my many years around water as an instructor, lifeguard and athlete, I’ve witnessed too many lives lost to drowning. This has had a profound impact on me, so I gave up a 25-year teaching career to focus on promoting water safety.
I set up the charity Above Water which supports water safety in education but needed a big hitting challenge to engage national and international media in water safety. This is why I thought of ‘The Long Paddle’, to be the first ever person to circumnavigate mainland Britain by stand-up paddle board. A 4000km journey of big waves, dangerous currents and relentless wind. I wanted to prove it could be done but most importantly, done safely!
There are many questions you should ask yourself when visiting water: does this water have a current? Are these waves safe? Is there a RIP? Is my child safe in the water without me supervising?
If you have been educated to understand water safety and drowning prevention, you will make hundreds of small decisions which keep you and your family safe when near water. The consequences of your ‘right’ decisions are fun memories by the sea or river. A ‘wrong’ decision this could lead to injury, rescue or even worse, someone drowning.
Sadly, I have seen the catastrophe that is drowning first-hand and the effect it has on family, friends and the community. It only takes one wrong decision when in, on or near water for someone to drown, so it’s important to brush up on your knowledge of water safety and teach children the basics too. The good news is, it’s not rocket science, but it does take time to understand and feel confident to make the right decisions.
I’d like to shed some light on something that many fear and very few understand…the RIP or Kraken as I was brought up to call it. It is a natural occurrence that played a very large part in my paddle around Britain.
When I was young and you could still buy penny sweets, I would hear tales of this monster that lurked in the surf zone waiting to grab the unsuspecting swimmer, surfer, paddler! The monster turned out not to be the kraken I had envisaged but a very natural flow of water called a RIP. RIPs are responsible for thousands of rescues each year and worldwide are a major cause of drowning.
I have a love/hate relationship with RIPs. When surfing, I love this flow of water that enables an easy ride ‘outback’, saving energy and enabling a swift path through the crashing white water. On the other hand, especially for the unsuspecting and non-water folk, a RIP is your worst nightmare - a true kraken of the sea.
Wave action brings water onto the beach with every wave and the RIP is the natural flow of this water back out again. This concentrated flow of water travels faster than an Olympic swimmer but only goes out as far as the breaking waves. Even a large RIP is no wider than your local 25m swimming pool. It will not pull you under the water and its path out to sea will be one of less white water as the outward flow reduces the size of the incoming waves.
If only a RIP stayed this simple – and on lots of beaches it can indeed be this simple to understand and identify. Unfortunately, just like the incoming waves, the outgoing RIP is totally unique. In all my years surfing, I’ve never encountered two RIPs the same. Its unique attributes add a degree of mystery...a deceitful edge that led to the ‘kraken’ name I’ve used since I was a child.
When I train lifeguards, I teach them to understand the flow of water on a beach. If you can understand this flow at high and low tide - with the effects of waves and the shape of the beach - you can predict the presence of a RIP even if it is not obvious to see. This level of understanding takes experience, years of experience. This is why lifeguards put out the ‘red and yellow’ flags because we know the best place to have the safest experience at the beach.
When the waves reach 0.5 of a metre there will be a RIP. The bigger the waves, the stronger the RIP. This means that when the winds blow and there are waves, there is a RIP on the beach. Beaches shaped like a bay will have a RIP at both ends and depending on size of bay may have many more in-between. Depending on size of wave action and tide height there can also be diagonal RIPs that feed the main kraken!
Putting the imagery of a kraken aside, RIPs are not the cause of drowning. Panic is the killer, responsible for frantic swimming against the flow, tiredness and inevitable swallowing of water. If you don’t know what to do in a RIP you will panic and it’s the panic that will cause drowning.
So, let’s keep it as simple as possible and understand what we can do to stay safe from a RIP.
Firstly, when you get to a beach, STOP & LOOK & LISTEN:
Spend a moment to look at the beach, look for any beach signage, identify dangers and RIPS.RIPS are often a flow of water that looks calmer than the surrounding water, sometimes darker as it carries the sediment from the shore out to sea.
Speak to locals, lifeguards, other beach users. Ask if they know of any dangers on the beach and check the signage. Remember that parents without any RIP knowledge often force their children to swim in the RIP because they think it’s an area of calmer water!
If you find yourself in a RIP, don’t panic. Remember the number one rule - never swim against the RIP, it’s too strong a flow of water. You have two options: either go with the flow - most RIPs work in a circular motion and will actually bring you back into shore once it’s taken you out - or swim parallel to the shore and exit the RIP to the side. If in doubt of the situation or your ability, float on your back or with your board and call for help.
The RIP is to be understood and respected. Almost every day of ‘The Long Paddle’ I used the RIP to my advantage, getting out to sea quicker or into shore safely.
It's estimated that the average adult makes about 35,000 remotely conscious decisions each day. Each decision, of course, carries certain consequences with it that are both good and bad, right or wrong. Just consider how many decisions you make when you have a day out at the beach. Should I have an ice-cream with a flake? Where should I position my towel? Which seagull is about to grab my sandwich?!
When I was paddling The Long Paddle, I spent an average of 10 hours a day paddling. Reading the ever-changing water conditions of water and weather kept my decision making ‘on its toes’. It’s why I think I probably made twice as many conscious decisions to stay safe during my journey. It’s these decisions that kept me safe, and with some basic water safety knowledge, you will STOP, LOOK and LISTEN before enjoying the water.
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