Is a beach safe to swim in the sea?

Beach Safety Flags - Hayle beach, Cornwall

So you want to take your kids to the seaside but how do you know is a beach safe to swim in the sea?

Really this falls down to three key points:

  • Lifeguards
  • The water quality
  • Water conditions

Not all beaches have lifeguards and measure the water quality.  If you are not confident it is best to stick to beaches with lifeguards or visit those with a Blue Flag award where information is available for you to make an informed decision.

Lifeguards

The main beaches in the UK have lifeguards during the summer season, typically Easter to the end of September.

These beaches have information points at the main beach entrance and also display flags on the beach. If you visit the beach for the first time then you should be reading the information board.

beach safety flagsRed and Yellow Flag

Shows a swimming and body boarding zone that has a lifeguard patrol and is safe to swim in the sea.

Black and White Flag

Shows a zone or boundary of a zone designated for use of surfboards and other water craft like.

Red Flag

The sea should be avoided, means dangerous conditions and that it is unsafe for swimming and other activities.

Orange Cone

An orange cone indicates when the wind and/or water conditions makes it unsafe for inflatables.

If in doubt always ask a lifeguard.

The Water Quality

Well the good news is that generally in the UK water quality on UK beaches has been improving. Assessments and reporting started in the 1990’s and we have seen a year on year improvement.

The water quality at designated sites is assesses weekly and measures the current water quality against the standards set in the European Bathing Water Directive. Tests are only during the Summer season from May to end of September. As well as the weekly tests, annual ratings classify each site based on samples from the previous four years.

The current bathing water quality information is displayed at the beach information board and the ratings are:

  • Excellent – the highest, cleanest class (also the standard required for a Blue Flag)
  • Good – generally good water quality
  • Sufficient – the water meets minimum standards
  • Poor – the water has not met the new minimum standards. Bathing waters classified as poor will have the “advice against bathing” advice throughout the following season.

The use of standardised symbols for the four classes, which all countries in the EU have to use at bathing waters across Europe, will help people make informed choices on where to swim. The symbols are as follows:

bathing water quality information

The water quality is only a guideline and a beach displaying a “poor” classification is only advice against bathing, it does not mean swimming is banned or that a beach is closed.

The Water Conditions

In the UK the three main water conditions to be aware of are: cold water, rip currents and waves.

Groynes with heavy sea and wavesCold water

Swimmers can get cold water shock when water temperatures are lower than 15⁰C (59⁰F) and in UK and Irish seas the average temperature is 12⁰C (54⁰F).

Thus, even in the Summer, the water temperature is cold enough to cause cold water shock. This can take the air from your lungs and leave you helpless. Swimmers, bodyboarders or surfers planning to spend a large amount of time in the sea should invest in a wet suit. Wetsuits don’t have to be expensive and often local shops and surf schools sell or even rent them out.

Rip currents

Rip currents, often just called “rips”, are strong currents running out to sea, that can quickly drag people away from the beach and out to deeper water. These currents are often found in larger surf conditions and near river mouths, estuaries and structures like piers and groynes.

Rip currents can be difficult to spot so don’t be afraid to ask lifeguards for advice. If no lifeguards are on the beach then ask other people in the sea as they may have local knowledge. But remember never, never go into the sea alone.

If you do find yourself caught in a rip:

– Swimmers should not swim against the flow as you’ll get exhausted, the current can flow anywhere between 1 and 5 mph, which will even beat an Olympic swimmer. The Rip is often narrow and you should try to swim parallel to the shore until free of the rip and then head back to the beach.
– The sea might not be that deep, if you can stand, wade don’t swim.
– Gain attention by raising you hand and shouting for help.

Waves

The main influencers to the size and power of a wave is how strong the wind is, how long it has been blowing, where it comes from and how steeply a beach slopes or shelves.

The best surfing beaches in the UK are around Cornwall and parts of south Wales where a south-west wind will bring waves from across the Atlantic Ocean and this is because the wave has had a long time and distance uninterrupted in the sea.

The right kinds of waves offer a lot of fun, but always stay mindful of your own limits.

 Remember treat water with respect and
never underestimate the power water


Our beach information pages give details on lifeguards and for England beaches give the water quality results where a test site exists on the beach.

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