Every year, lives are lost at North Coast beaches and rivers. Some are visitors, but too many are locals, who have plenty of opportunity to become aware of the dangers. Most of us remain here or moved here for the fabulous scenery, but it can have high risks.
Much of the danger results from simple geology. Our beaches tend to be narrow strips of sand backed by rocky cliffs. Often the ocean floor drops off sharply past the low tide zone, and more rocks offshore create eddies and rip currents.
Even on the hottest summer days inland, the rivers run cold with snow melt. Shallows may be slow moving and sun-warmed, but swifter currents just yards away can be deadly. Temperature matters; cold shock response in either open water or a river can quickly rob a victim of the ability to swim effectively.
Even a strong swimmer wearing a wet suit can get into trouble in those conditions; a weak one wearing heavy clothing has almost no chance of emerging alive. Others often perish trying to rescue the first person – or dog – in the water. Ironically, dogs are much more likely to survive than humans.
Their natural swimming position keeps the head out of the water, and some, such as retrievers, have been selectively bred for generations to be good swimmers with water repellent coats. I’d be the last one to advise people against trying to save those they love, because it goes against nature, and in that kind of situation, it’s nature that rules, not distant warnings in a newspaper column.
But I will urge you to prevent having to make that terrible choice. It’s no secret which local beaches are the most dangerous, including Big Lagoon, Freshwater Lagoon, Agate Beach and Shelter Cove, where the most recent fatality occurred. Even seemingly calm water conditions can become deadly when sneaker waves develop out of nowhere.
Pay attention to tides; the safest time on a beach is as the tide is receding from its high point. Tide times are easily available in the newspapers, at bait shops and online. Make sure you have plenty of time to enjoy the beach before the waves begin marching back toward the high water mark.
A wide buffer zone between the usual high water line and dunes or cliffs gives an added measure of safety. Enjoy the scenery from the soft, dry sand to avoid having to run for your life. Pay attention to the ocean, and never turn your back on the waves.
Here’s a suggestion that many people reject outright: please, please, please keep your dogs leashed at the beach. I know a lot of you are saying “but my dogs LOVE to run free on the sand!” But how would you feel if one of them got sucked out into the hostile waves?
That’s the moment we want to avoid. Keeping them leashed also discourages them from pressing unwanted attentions on other beach users or harassing wildlife. Clam Beach, one of our most suitable and popular multipurpose beaches, has seen negative impacts from dogs running free.
Small children love to run free on the beach, wade in the water and play in the wet sand, too, but most people realize that’s just not safe. Protecting your children and your dogs ultimately protects you, because you won’t be faced with the moment of decision as they are swept away in the surf.
Alcohol impairs judgment, and impaired judgment can be fatal around water. It leads people to overestimate their skills and underestimate dangerous conditions. It also makes them less attentive to watching children and pets, which can lead to tragedy.
Every child should wear a life jacket on or near the water. Adult supervision is needed at all times, the flotation device just buys a little extra time. Children should learn to swim in approved classes as early as possible.
Children don’t just drown in the ocean, lakes or rivers. Residential swimming pools, spas and bath tubs are also sources of unexpected danger. Take a look around where your small children spend time.
Does Grandma’s neighbor have duck pond? Is there a spa with an unsecured cover in the back yard of the daycare center? Does the drainage ditch outside Aunt Sally’s house have two feet of water in it after a heavy rain?
No one sets off from home planning to drown. Yet the vast majority of drownings are preventable. Please enjoy the local scenic wonders safely.
(Elizabeth Alves notes that when authorities post beaches as unsafe, there’s a reason. Comments and suggestions are welcome care of the Press or to [email protected])