In 2004, San Clemente lifeguards rescued over 3,000 swimmers in distress. Remarkably, no one has drowned in San Clemente in over 25 years.
Whether you’re a first timer to the beach or a full-time “beach bum”, the ocean can be very exciting and enjoyable with virtually unlimited recreational opportunities. However, the ocean can also be very dangerous. With a few safety tips and the use of common sense, many of these dangers can be avoided.
Things to do at home:
Learn to swim
Make sure everyone in the family learns to swim. This, with rare exceptions, cannot be done in the ocean.
Get some fins
Your next step is to purchase appropriate gear for the ocean. Fins are excellent tools for assisting you in swimming against the currents in the ocean and increasing your overall enjoyment.
Get a leash!
If you or your children use body boards, be sure to get one with a good “leash”. The leash is a tether that attaches the board to the user’s arm and will keep the board close at hand.
Backpacks: This is not a safety issue, but definitely a convenience that will lead to a more pleasurable experience at the beach. Fins, towels, sunscreen, food and water can all be carried in your backpack.
Food and water: Bring plenty of food and water. This is another common sense tip that is often neglected.
What not to bring:
Please leave your dogs, cigarettes and alcohol at home (just not together!). These are all prohibited on San Clemente’s beaches.
Skin Cancer Prevention
Before leaving home, apply sunscreen. Sunscreen is much more effective if applied while the skin is cool and dry, and the sunscreen has time to be absorbed and dry completely. Select a waterproof sunscreen that has a high SPF number (25 or higher). Large hats, umbrellas, and long sleeved shirts are good sun protection items for use on the beach. In the water, “rash guards” that are made for swimming with UV protection are excellent forms of protection from the sun and are well worth the small investment.
At the beach:
First, locate the nearest lifeguard tower, restroom, and concession stand. Is the lifeguard tower open? If not, you may want to relocate to one that is. Swimming near a lifeguard is very important. Never swim alone. Swimming with a friend will be more fun and will assure that someone is there to help you or get help should something unfortunate happen.
Next, ask the lifeguard about rip currents, side currents, wave size, and any other hazards. Share this with your family. If there isn’t a lifeguard nearby, check the flag conditions. In San Clemente (and on many other beaches), the lifeguards fly colored flags on their towers, indicating the relative danger in the ocean. A green flag signifies that it is generally safe for an average swimmer. A yellow flag tells you to use caution – there is a moderate level of danger in the ocean. A red flag means it is too dangerous and only expert swimmers or surfers should enter the water.
Meeting Point/Swimming guidelines for family
You are just about ready to hit the water. The last step is to set up meeting points and parameters for your family. If someone gets lost or separated, where will you meet? How about the closest lifeguard tower? This is especially important to share with young children who may wander down the beach looking for their parents in a sea of umbrellas that all look alike. Tell your child to go to the closest lifeguard tower and let the lifeguard know that “my parents are lost”. Our lifeguards help locate hundreds of lost children, with a 100% success rate. Also, be sure to set up parameters for where the kids can go in the ocean. How deep can they go? How far down the beach? Establish landmarks and insist that if they drift past these landmarks, they return to the beach and walk back to the proper area. All right, let’s hit the water!
In the Water
Don’t dive in…
You should never dive into the ocean – the risk of hitting your head on the bottom is just too great. The same thing applies to attempting flips and other acrobatics – as fun as they may be. Lifeguards see too many neck injuries from these types of activities. Enter the water cautiously wearing your fins and avoiding the hazards that the lifeguard pointed out to you.
Fins and “wiping out”
Your fins will allow you to move much faster in the water – similar to a dolphin’s tail pushing him along. If you are moving faster, you can catch the wave sooner and the wave won’t be as steep. Without fins, the wave needs to be very steep for you to catch it, and you often fall from the top of the wave to the bottom – headfirst. This is BAD. With fins, you can kick hard, catch the wave and gracefully ride it in without the dreaded “going over the falls”. If you do happen to go over the falls or have any other “wipeout”, cover your head with your arms and try to contort your body to avoid landing head first. Feet first, back first, belly first, or rear-end first. Anything but head first! Regardless, cover your head while you are tumbled, hold your breath, relax, and you will surface.
What happens if you notice you are getting further from the beach than you really want to be? This is common in the ocean and is usually caused by rip currents (rip tides). These are narrow channels of water flowing seaward, where the water from the waves that is rushing up the beach is returning to the ocean. These currents rarely pull much further out than the waves, but can be very strong. Instead of fighting the current, simply swim parallel to the beach for 20 yards or so and then try to return to the beach. If it’s still pulling you out, try to swim to the side again. If this doesn’t work, or you’re just too tired, relax, raise an arm, and a lifeguard will be out to assist you. If you are on a body board or surfboard – STAY ON IT! Many people think it will be easier without their board. This is not a good choice – since your board will keep you afloat until help arrives. This is also where swim fins really pay off. In fact, with fins on, you can make it out of most rip currents on your own. Again, fins are well worth the investment.
Well, we’ve just about covered the main safety issues for the beach and ocean. Here are some comments about various sea “creatures” you may encounter.
Sharks - These are almost non-existent at San Clemente’s beaches, but are the cause of much concern amongst beach goers (especially since the movie “Jaws”). The few sharks that do come near the surf are normally small, harmless sharks commonly called sand sharks. There has never been a shark attack in San Clemente! If you see something that looks like a shark, it is most likely a dolphin. If you are unsure, return to the beach and check with the lifeguard.
Dolphins – These are very common in our area. You can recognize them by their swimming motion which will be up and down (their dorsal fin will come up then go under). Dolphins are very friendly and curious, but may protect their babies. Keep a safe distance so you do not disturb them.
Stingrays – These are common and lay on the bottom of the ocean, especially when the water is warm and surf is small. Shuffle your feet on the bottom to scare them away. If you step on one, it’s very painful. Get assistance from a lifeguard right away.
Seals -. These often come onto the beach to rest. Please stay away (they bite) and let the lifeguard know.
Seagulls – Not a hazard, but they will get into any food left open and unattended on the beach and can spoil your day. Keep your food packed away until you are ready to eat it (or they will eat it for you!).
We hope you enjoy your stay in San Clemente and that it’s a safe one! Before heading home, please be sure to pack up your trash. Your assistance in keeping this beautiful environment clean is appreciated.
Please feel free to stop by any of our lifeguard tower and say hello or drop us a note to let us know how your day was! b
Bill Humphreys can be reached at (949)361-8219