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Surf scientist warns of risks of swimming at unpatrolled beaches

Surf scientist warns of risks of swimming at unpatrolled beaches
December 18, 2023

With the peak summer holiday period approaching, Professor Rob Brander - known as ‘Dr Rip’ - a surf scientist with UNSW Sydney's School of Biological, Earth and Environmental Sciences has warned of the dangers of swimming at unpatrolled beaches.

Professor Brander, who has studied rip current hazards on beaches from both physical and social science perspectives for the past 30 years, advises that there is no doubt that the 'swim between the flags' message has kept millions of people safe when visiting one of Australia's beaches patrolled by lifeguards and lifesavers.

However, last summer, 54 people drowned in 90 days along the Australian coast - all of them in unpatrolled locations, with 78% occurring on beaches.

Professor Brander explains "we know from studies we've conducted that there are two primary reasons that people continue to swim at unpatrolled beaches – where there are no flags or lifesavers.

"The first is that the beach is the closest one to their holiday accommodation. The reality is that people don't jump in their car and drive 20 minutes to the nearest patrolled beach.

"The second main reason is they actively choose beaches that are quiet and away from the holiday crowds.

"So while 'swim between the flags' is a great message and keeps us safe on patrolled beaches, we need to accept the fact that there are many popular and accessible unpatrolled beaches, and that people will always visit them.

"We don’t want to encourage people to swim at unpatrolled beaches, but we need to come up with some practical advice about how they can be safer when visiting them."

Professor Brander points to Surf Life Saving Australia's Think Line Campaign as a great start, with the organisation having started setting up emergency response beacons (ERBs) at beaches in NSW that allow people on the beach to communicate directly with the Surf Life Saving NSW State Operations Centre in an emergency.

He notes "the Think Line is a simple concept that applies to any beach. You don't cross the road without looking both ways, so when you first arrive at a beach you need to stop and think about beach safety and look for any hazards. You also need to have a plan if something goes wrong.”

Addressing beachgoers, Professor Brander says people should ask the following questions:

  1. Are there any flags or lifeguards?
  2. Did you see any signs saying beach closed or no lifeguard on duty?
  3. What's the surf like - are the waves too big for you?
  4. Are you with people or alone? Are there other people on the beach?
  5. Are there any floatation devices nearby - surfboards, boogie boards, a cooler or anything that floats?
  6. Do you have mobile reception?
  7. Is there an Emergency Response Beacon on the beach to alert emergency services?
  8. Are you a strong swimmer?
  9. Do you know how to spot a rip?

Professor Brander states that the answers given to these questions should give the public a better sense of the type of risk they are taking by swimming at an unpatrolled beach.

He also gives much more forthright in one key scenario, commenting “if you're alone on the beach, and there's no one around, and you're not a surfer or an experienced ocean swimmer, and you think it might be OK to go in the water - don't!

"If you get stuck in a rip, there's no one going to be able to save you. So if in doubt, don't go out."

How to spot a rip
What makes rips particularly dangerous is at first glance, many of them look like seemingly calm, darker patches of water.

Many people arrive at the beach and assume the darker, greener areas are the safest place to swim because there are no waves breaking there.

However, the reality is that breaking waves and whitewater mean that it’s shallower and that whitewater is moving water onshore. Those darker, green gaps between the whitewater mean it’s deeper and could be rip currents that take you out to sea. One way to remember it is using the saying: white is nice, green is mean.

Professor Brander goes on to say "the sad thing about rip currents is they are potentially avoidable. But on average, 25 to 30 people tragically drown every year in Australia each year after being caught in rips. That's more on average than the number of fatalities per year caused by cyclones, bushfires, floods and sharks combined. Rip currents are a big deal.

"The simple fact is, if you don't get in a rip current, you won't drown in one."

He offers the following advice on how to spot a rip, noting that there are the three different kinds of rip currents.

1. Channelised rips
The most common rip and the easiest to spot are the ones that sit in deep channels between shallow sandbars. These channelised rips look like dark gaps between areas of whitewater and breaking waves.

Channelised rips can be in the same place for days, weeks and even months, and are the easiest to spot. Generally, you don’t just get one channelised rip as they occur along the beach at varying intervals.

2. Boundary rips
Boundary rip currents are another common type of rip, that also usually occupy deeper channels, but they occur next to headlands, rock outcrops, or human-made structures like piers, jetties and groins. Water flowing along the beach will hit these rocky features or structures and will be deflected offshore.

Boundary rips can be almost permanent, in fact, they are often named – such as the 'Backpacker Express' at Bondi in Sydney or the nearby 'Bronte Express'. Surfers use boundary rips to get quickly out beyond the breakers, but swimmers can easily get into trouble if they get caught in them by swimming too close to the rocks.

Professor Brander advises "some boundary rips are great for surfers who get a free ride out the back to catch waves, but they're not good for swimmers, who may be fooled by the calmer looking waters.

"In terms of safety on the beach, you really don't want to be swimming anywhere near rocks, headlands, or structures."

3. Flash rips
The final type of rip is a flash rip. These rips are different because they do not sit in deep channels and don't look like dark gaps.

They're also common, but occur quickly and don’t last long, which makes them hard to spot. Here’s some examples from Coogee Beach in Sydney and City Beach in Perth.

Explaining that flash rips are caused by some random large waves, or a set of larger waves that break, which makes them impossible to predict, and very difficult to study, Professor Brander notes “every now and then particularly when the waves are messy, you get a couple of big waves break, the water piles up and it pushes a rip current out called a flash rip. You'll see the turbulent whitewater, you'll see clouds of sand going out to sea and if anyone's in that region, they can easily be caught and taken offshore.

"A flash rip may only last for a minute or so and then it disappears. But others can quickly develop elsewhere along the beach. They're very difficult to spot because they form quickly and don't last very long. So it's something you should be aware of, and also remember they can also often form off the back of sandbars."

Click here to view a full multimedia, immersive experience on rip currents.

Image: UNSW Sydney/Richard Freeman.

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