Water safety tips everyone should know

Sunny weather and steamy temperatures have many of us heading to the water for a little fun and adventure — but it only takes seconds for a summer getaway to turn to tragedy. With summer fun comes a spike in drowning and near drowning incidents, injuries, boating accidents and other mishaps on our lakes and rivers. This past weekend alone, a 15-year old boy drowned in Georgian Bay, not to mention a swath of drownings throughout the U.S. Meanwhile, friends and family gathered in Chatham to say good-bye to good-bye to another drowning victim.

What’s frightening about these incidents is that they can happen so quickly – and leave such devastating consequences.

What can we do to prevent accidents? Here are some steps we should all be taking, according to safety experts.

Learn to swim… and upgrade your skills

No matter what our age, the most important thing we can do to stay safe around water is to learn how to survive in it. Unlike many animals, humans don’t instinctively know how to swim. If we accidentally fall into the water, panic and water temperature can quickly turn deadly. Swimming, treading water and sculling are life skills everyone should have.  Many recreational facilities offer swimming programs for all ages and abilities.

Even if you know how to swim, a refresher course can fill in the gaps of going from pool to lake or river. For instance, even experienced swimmers may not know how to escape a strong current or position themselves to prevent heat loss in cold water. Swimming lessons also teach basic lifesaving techniques like how to help a person who is drowning without putting your own safety at risk.

Brush up your skills

In addition to learning how to swim, there are a few other skills we can add to our repertoire:

CPR and first aid. Every second counts when there’s an emergency — especially when someone isn’t breathing. There won’t always be a lifeguard at hand, and having these skills can give you the knowledge and confidence to deal with emergencies. (See CPR: What you need to know to save a life.)

Boating. Do you know what channel markers mean, or what the local speed limit is? How to navigate? What effects wind and water currents will have? Boaters not only need to know how to operate their chosen watercraft, they need to know the rules of the waterways. Boating licenses are required in Canada and the U.S., and you can obtain one by completing a safety course and passing the exam (which can often be done online).

Likewise, it’s important to learn proper form and technique as well as safety measures for any activity you plan to participate in, such as kayaking or scuba diving.

Know your environment

We love to be around water, but there are often hidden hazards lurking in the environment that can lead to falls and other injuries. That’s why experts warn to get to know your surroundings. That serene blue surface can conceal strong currents, shoals, weeds and debris or sharp rocks. On Canada’s coasts, strong waves have been known to sweep away bystanders who get too close. Beaches and lakes can also be a breeding ground for dangerous bacteria like E. coli.

Is isn’t just the water that can be dangerous. A slippery dock, nearby cliffs, unsafe paths or trails and rocks can cause falls — even for pets.

If you plan to go out on the water, experts also recommend checking marine charts before you head out — and keeping a copy in your boat too.

Keep an eye on weather conditions

A sudden storm can quickly turn a safe setting or activity into a dangerous one. Wind, waves and weather are a contributing factor in the majority of deaths due to falling overboard or a boat capsizing, according to the Red Cross.

However, don’t just check the forecast before you head out: experts also recommend keeping tabs on the weather throughout the day too. A portable radio — preferably one with a hand crank or solar panel instead of batteries — is an essential item to keep on board. Pay attention to the "marine forecast" for information tailored to boaters. When conditions change, don’t hesitate to get to safety right away.

Also, be sure to check on the sunset time — boating, swimming and water sports are much safer during daylight hours. The International Life Saving Federation reports that one third of water-related deaths occur in the dark — especially boat collisions.

Wear a lifejacket or PFD

It’s one piece of safety equipment that should be worn, not stored. Research shows that in the majority of deaths due to boating accidents, the victim wasn’t wearing a lifejacket. Even if you’re a strong swimmer, an injury could prevent you from staying afloat.

These safety measures aren’t just for the boat — they’re also a good idea for children and inexperienced swimmers whenever they’re around water. However, simply donning one isn’t enough: it has to be a good fit and suitable for the activities you plan to undertake. Make sure it’s got the stamp of approval from the Coast Guard, check the weight limits and make sure it can be adjusted for a good fit. You should be able to freely move your arms and legs. The Red Cross also recommends attaching a whistle — three blows is commonly recognized as a distress signal.

Have the right equipment — and check it first

Do you have the right equipment for your activities, and is it in good condition? Better check before you head out. Look for any signs of damage or normal wear and tear on your sports equipment, boat and inflatable toys. Also, check that your first aid supplies haven’t expired — and make sure your fire extinguisher is still current.

And boaters beware: did you know that there are minimum safety equipment requirements for each type of vessel? For instance, a sailboat or powered pleasure craft up to 6 m in length requires things like a fire extinguisher, anchor, hook, flashlight, oars, compass and lifejackets or PFDs for everyone on board. (A full list can be found on Transport Canada’s Office of Boating Safety website. If you’re travelling in U.S. waters, these requirements are set by the state.)


Take care of yourself

Staying alert is the key to staying safe. Dehydration and heat-related illnesses can affect our judgment, coordination and safety — that’s why its important to drink plenty of fluids and practice sun safety measures like covering up, wearing sunglasses and wearing sunscreen. The American Red Cross warns to watch out for the hazardous "toos": feeling too tired or too cold, getting too much sun, engaging in too much strenuous activity and going too far from safety.

Another big no-no: alcohol. It’s illegal to operate watercraft while drinking or intoxicated, but even a few drinks can be a danger for swimmers. Alcohol not only impairs the judgement, it also affects coordination (essential for swimming) and can hamper the body’s ability to stay warm, say experts. Research has shown alcohol was a factor in at least half of drowning deaths during recreational water activities, and drinking and diving is a top cause of spinal cord injuries.

Practice safety in numbers

Experts have been saying it for years: never swim alone. However, the "buddy system" also comes in handy for other recreational activities too. It’s fun to share activities with others, but it can be a matter of life or death having someone on hand to help in an emergency.

Of course, there’s one caveat: children should always have constant adult supervision. Drowning is one of the top causes of death of children under the age of five. Experts recommend that the younger a child is, the closer they should be to an adult — for example, younger children should be within arm’s reach. Floating toys and devices like "water wings" aren’t a substitute for supervision — especially since they can lose air or shift unpredictably.

Also, don’t overestimate the safety of shallow water. One quarter of drowning deaths occur in less than a meter of water, warns the International Life Saving Federation.

Tell someone your plans

One final word of advice: let someone know where you are going, what you plan to do and when you will return. If you’re in an accident or delayed, you’ll want someone on the home front to send help.

For more tips on water and boating safety, visit:

American Red Cross: Water Safety Tips
Canadian Red Cross: Swimming and Water Safety
Transport Canada Office of Boating Safety

Additional sources: International Life Saving Organization, Safe Kids USA, Water Safety New Zealand

Photo ©iStockphoto.com/ Jason Lugo

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