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Safety in the Surf

Safety in pools is always a troublesome and critical issue for the watershaping industry. But what about water safety in open waters? Eric Herman has some important thoughts on the matter, a set of beliefs that started when he saw a fellow teen lose his life back in 1976.

By Eric Herman

When I was 16 years old, I saw a kid just about my age drown at Huntington Beach, Calif. I was with two of my best friends and we were stunned. We stood and watched as the lifeguards tried to revive him, but to no avail. He was already gone when they pulled him from the surf. People around us were equally shocked, some were crying.

That was a real long ride home that day and I’ve never forgotten it. The sight of someone so young losing his life still haunts me. It was so random and so sudden. I’ve long thought it could have just as easily been me or one of my friends. I’ll never forget seeing the lifeguard who tried to save him on his knees in the sand sobbing uncontrollably.

Fast-forward nearly a half century, this past weekend my wife and I decided to escape the heat here in sweltering, and humid, Palm Springs, so we headed to the beach. As it turned out, we found ourselves very close to the exact spot where I saw the young man perish some 44 years ago.

It was an amazingly beautiful day. The water was a mild 80 degrees, not a cloud in the sky, and it felt great to swim and catch a few waves. There were literally thousands of people doing the exact same thing, frolicking in the water without a care in the world. As I was watching the throngs of young — and not-so young — enjoy the water, I was yet again reminded of the danger that lurks in the ocean. I could still see the young man lying in the sand, foam spewing from his mouth and nostrils, as though it was yesterday.

When I got home, I decided to look up information about the risk of open-water swimming. I came across a great article from 2018 on the TODAY website about a study from Safe Kids Worldwide that was all about the drowning risks in natural bodies of water.

This quote from research director Morag MacKay caught my attention: “We hear a lot about kids drowning in pools, and there has been a fair amount of work done in that area, and we have seen those drowning decrease. But drownings in open water have increased.”

The report, titled “Hidden Hazards: An Exploration of Open Water Drowning and Risks for Children” found that 43% of all drownings occur in open water, in places such as quarries, oceans, lakes, rivers, retention ponds, reservoirs and ponds. Drowning in pools accounted for 38%. The report examined statistics from 2016, which saw 1,000 children from infancy to age 19 die from drowning. Half of all open water drownings were kids aged15 to 19, with more than 80% of those tragedies boys.

“We socialize boys to take more risks and therefore that is part of it,” MacKay said. “We supervise slightly differently based on the gender of the kids.”

The report pointed out the benefits of learning to swim and how doing so reduces the risk of drowning and near-drowning. It also listed the added risk factors inherent in open water swimming including: rapid water temperature changes, steep drop-offs, difficulty judging distance, limited visibility, dangerous currents, and the presence of vegetation and rocks.

The report concludes with the admonition that children should be taught both swimming pool and open water safety; and, that there should always be a responsible adult watching young swimmers, whether in a pool or elsewhere.

I couldn’t agree more.

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