Our proximity to the ocean, incredible climate and outdoor lifestyle means it is in inevitable that many North Coasters – adults and kids – spend a lot of time in the water. As summer arrives, we asked well-known author, adventurer and ocean recreation safety instructor John McCarthy for some advice.
A former competitive surfer and professional lifeguard, John is probably more comfortable in the water than anywhere else. Having travelled the world extensively, he is also a veteran competitive canoeist, surf ski paddler and certified Master freediver. His true passion lies in open water swimming though. John was the navigation and safety officer for South African endurance swimmer Sarah Ferguson on two of her biggest swims and he designed the Underwater Swim Free Confidence course to help people be safer and more comfortable in and under water. He is also the author of two books.
John shared his 2020 Swim Free Water Safety Guide with us – an 18-step guide to help anyone enjoy water activities more safely. He wants parents, coaches, facilitators and anyone working with children or adults where water activities are involved to read it. “In South Africa more than 600 children die by drowning every year and many more are disabled by a non-fatal drowning incident. This is a statistic that I, as a father, struggle to accept. I encourage people to their children through the swim free guide step-by-step,” he says. “It could save their lives.”
WE’VE PULLED OUT JUST A FEW OF JOHN’S TIPS FOR BEING SAFE IN THE WATER. THE COMPREHENSIVE 18-STEP GUIDE CAN BE FOUND ON THE SWIM FREE WEBSITE:
* Always respect water. We can survive extraordinary things in water if we approach it with respect and are able to operate in a calm and confident manner. It is easy to perish if we are ignorant, arrogant, impatient or foolish.
* When evaluating risk, think in colours: green, amber, and red. Green is safe and red dangerous. Use this mindset to assess risk when approaching a body of water – whether it’s the ocean, a dam or river or a pool. Pause before entering and take time to colour the picture in your mind. For example, in a pool, the deep end and diving boards would be amber to red and the shallow end green. In a river the rapids, fast-flowing water, weirs and blockages would be red. A dam with clear water and easy access in and out would be green. In the same dam, but with murky water where you can’t see the bottom – that would be amber. In the ocean, the rocks and the rip currents would be amber to red, where a nice shallow sand bank with gentle foamies rolling towards shore would be green. If you look at a situation and you don’t understand what is going on, then by default you automatically mark that part of the picture red. Also, remember that nature is dynamic and always changing and a picture can go from green to red very quickly.
* The first rule of lifesaving is self-rescue. You also need to use the colours to gauge how you are feeling in a situation. Green means ‘I understand my situation, I’m completely calm and confident in my ability. Amber is when doubt creeps in and red is, ‘I’m out of my depth and feeling overwhelmed’. You always want to be green – if you’re amber or red try to exit. Prevention is ultimately better than cure though, so if you have any doubt, rather do not enter the water and swim another day!
* When entering the water, always use the buddy rule. When you buddy up, you watch out for and stay close to each other. If one of you is swimming underwater the other must stay on the surface until you come up. If you become separated immediately alert a teacher, lifeguard or person in authority. If you are in distress, the universal signal is one arm waved slowly above your head.
* A drowning person doesn’t look like what they show on TV. Most often, a drowning person will simply slip below the surface with very little splash or fuss. Either because they can’t swim or are fatigued.
* Parents – watch your children in the water. Even if they can swim and regardless of how old they are. Do not be distracted by social media. Drowning is silent and you will not hear splashes or screams for help. If a child says they can swim don’t believe them unless you witness their ability.
Text: Leah Shone