How to Think Like a Lifeguard

Want to help your family stay safe at the beach? Brian Murphy, the winner of the U.S. Lifesaving Association’s 2013 National Lifeguard Championship, shares some sea smarts from his Los Angeles post.

Photo by James Wojcik

Exactly what are rip currents?

Narrow channels that can pull even expert swimmers into deeper waters. Warn your kids about them, because rip currents are the reason for 80 percent of rescues, and they’re tricky to spot. Look for churning, choppy water; a break in the wave pattern; water of a different color; or a line of foam moving seaward.

What should you do if you get caught in a rip current?

Stay calm, and if you have a flotation device, hold tight to it. Swim parallel to the shore to exit the current. If you can’t escape, float and wave for the lifeguard.

Any other related dangers?

Rip currents can create an uneven ocean bottom. Small children may be standing in waist-deep water and get submerged if they take one step forward.

How far out is it safe to swim?

A child who can merely float shouldn’t go in past her knees. If she can do a few strokes at a time, she should stop at her chest. Only strong, trained swimmers should delve into water that’s over their heads. And be careful who your children are in the water with. Kids who lack swimming skills can unintentionally pull their pals underwater trying to stay afloat.

Say a big wave is forming...

When it’s about to crest, dive down headfirst toward the wave with your arms in front of you and touch the sand with your hands so you know that you are deep enough below the surface. Once you feel the wave whoosh past, return to the surface.

And if a wave catches you off guard and pummels you?

Hold your breath and curl up into a ball, protecting your head with your hands. Just go with the flow: The wave will eventually release you from its grip, and you’ll float back up. You can also stand up as soon as you feel the wave calm down around you.

How can you tell if someone else is in trouble?

Generally, a drowning person looks as if he’s climbing an invisible ladder. You’ll see him struggling to keep his mouth above water. Plus, he’ll often be facing the beach, possibly with hair covering his eyes.

How can you help?

Alert the lifeguard. If you can’t find one, tell someone to call 911 as you size up the situation. If you don’t see obvious dangers (like rocks), the waves look manageable, and you’re a capable swimmer, grab a boogie board or another flotation device and swim to the victim. Don’t try to save someone, even a small child, without a flotation device. It’s nearly impossible.