Surviving the Surf

Summer wouldn’t be summer without the beach.  Extremely popular with people from all walks of life, to be able to enjoy the beach fully, knowing how to swim is essential.  More than that, being confident in the water and learning to deal with surf and the resultant rips and currents will allow you to enjoy activities such as body boarding, surfing, wave skiing and wind surfing.

Many different conditions are experienced on our coastlines.  Here in South Australia, the beaches around Adelaide consist of white sand and shallow, calm waters.  Crowds flock to the beaches on hot summer evenings to take advantage of the relatively warm, safe waters.  There are no rips or currents to contend with and the whole family can swim safely.

Semi-exposed coastlines produce some wave action.  If there is an obvious swell rolling in, there will be breaking waves, sandbanks and deeper sections called holes or gutters.  The sandbanks are notable because of the white water.  When the waves (lines of swell) come out of the deeper water and near the shore, they increase in height and start to break, or curl over.  If you see a wave breaking along its entire length, then the water underneath is probably shallow and of a relatively uniform depth.  This would indicate a sandbank on a sandy beach.

Beach SafetyCredit: Steven Pike

A hole or gutter will show as a deeper green or blue.  Depending on the depth of the gutter, the wave may not break or may fade altogether (which would indicate a very deep hole).

The holes and gutters are where the rips and currents lurk.  The water hits the beach and then flows back out again, usually through these deeper areas.  The water is concentrated and races back out causing a tremendous amount of drag.  Surfers use these areas to take them back out to where the waves are breaking, which is much easier than trying to paddle your way through all the breaking waves and white water.

There is no need to fear these rips.  If you are a swimmer, then they are good places to avoid.  If you do get stuck in a rip though, the best way to escape it is to swim sideways towards all the breaking waves and white water.  These areas look nasty, but the breaking waves lack power and are more likely to push you back towards shore.  If you attempt to swim directly into the rip, you will tire quickly and will get nowhere.

Years ago, on a southern beach here in South Australia, I had been surfing at one end of the beach.  The swell was quite small, but very clean.   (No wind, so very smooth waves).  I was using a small rip to take me out then I would move sideways a little where the edges of the waves were breaking.  I could then ride along the waves until they faded into the rip, then flow back out with it.  I was the only one there and enjoying myself immensely.

A young boy, about 12 years of age, entered the water with his body board, straight into the rip.  I didn’t take much notice of him at first.  About 15 minutes later, I saw that he was well past where I was surfing and looked to be in a little bit of trouble.  I paddled over and saw that he was terrified and absolutely exhausted.  He had panicked and had been taken out much farther than he intended to go.  I slipped off my board and he scrambled onto it.  I pushed him into the white water and steadied the board as we coasted into the beach.  It took all of 5 minutes to get back to shore.  When we reached it, he was so shaken up, that he jumped off the board and ran back up the beach to his parents.

This shows how dangerous rips can be, but they are easily managed.

Some beaches are susceptible to cross currents.  What often happens here is that you will be happily swimming in front of your chosen spot on the beach and, after a few minutes, you’ll look up and realise that you have drifted 20 or 30 metres up the beach.   Every time you lift your feet off the bottom to jump a wave the current pushes you sideways a little.  If you do not pay attention, you could end up 100’s of metres along the beach.  This problem is accentuated if you are surfing or body boarding and you will have to continually monitor your position.

If the surf is large, then care needs to be taken with the waves themselves.  If you have ever been hit by a solid green wall of water that is a large wave, you will know the power that they can generate.  If faced with such a wave, the best way through is to dive into the base of it as it rises up in front of you.  You will feel it drag you back a bit, but you will emerge on the other side unscathed. 

Waves come in sets, so be aware that if you successfully negotiate the first wave, you may be confronted by another, probably larger wave, so get ready to dive again.  The larger waves seem to arrive in sets of three; with the third often being the largest, but this is not always the case.

The same applies if you are confronted by a solid wall of white water after the wave has broken.  Diving under this mess is the way to go.  Be careful though.  Swimming or paddling through white water is very tiring; a bit like taking one step forward and two steps back.

At times, often during strong onshore winds, the surf can be a mess with waves breaking all over the place with no discernable pattern.  If the surf is large then it may be safer to stay out of the water altogether.

The most important aspect is to make certain you do not become exhausted whilst in the surf.  All it takes then is a mouthful of water or a knockdown and you may not regain your breath.  This is especially dangerous if you are in water over your depth.

If caught in a rip or being pounded by waves, don’t panic.  This is, of course, easy to say, but when you are in trouble it’s never easy to do.  I remember being knocked off my board by a large wave which caused me to spin around.  I swam towards what I though was the surface, but then felt my head hit the sand; I had swum deeper instead of going up to the surface.  I immediately felt the first stirrings of panic, as I was close to running out of breath.  Then I realised it couldn’t have been very deep, so I pushed off from the bottom and headed up.  When the water cleared I could easily differentiate between up and down, but when the water is all stirred up, it’s difficult to tell.

The beach is far more enjoyable if you are familiar with the conditions and confident that you can deal with them.  Just remember not to tackle conditions that are in excess of your ability to deal with them.