Updated: Jun 20
When we look at water safety, we need to look at it from 4 points of view. So, to keep it as straight forward as possible this article will look at it from the point of the General public, Paying customer/Activity participant, Venue and Tour operator as well as guides. There is unfortunately not enough space to go into detail on all topics, but this article should give you a broad idea of what to do and look for to stay as safe as possible when having fun in and around water.
It is also important that we define the act of swimming. So, for the purpose of this article swimming will be the act of moving yourself through water, along the surface without touching the bottom or sides of the pool, river, dam, or ocean for a minimum distance of 15m.
People who are busy drowning are quiet, have little to no control over what is happening to them and need outside help.
1. General Public.
These guidelines apply to swimmers and non-swimmers.
Beaches and the Ocean.
If you are not familiar with the ocean, tides, and coastal currents then the best way to stay safe is to make sure you only enter the water and play in the waves in places that have lifeguards who are On Duty. If there are no lifeguards and you want to cool down a bit then stay in the shallow water which means the water should stay below your waist, mid-thigh is good. This counts even if you can swim.
Swimming in the ocean is very different to swimming in the pool. Avoid going into the water if the beach you are at is very steep. Steep angled beaches generally result in heavy shore break, strong tow back and strong rip currents. If somebody needs help it is best to call the NSRI hot lines and local emergency services, you can also throw something that floats like a beach ball, body board etc. towards the person for them to hold onto.
On some beaches that are frequented by the public but do not have lifeguards, you might find a pink rescue buoy, take it off the stand and throw it as far as possible towards the person in distress and call for help. DO NOT swim in after the person unless you know what you are doing. If you are the person being pulled into the ocean, relax as much as possible, do not fight the current, if you can, swim parallel to the shore, the current will eventually bring you back to the shore and then you can use the waves to help get you ashore.
Rivers and dams.
Firstly, please remember that in many of the northern provinces (KwaZulu-Natal, Mpumalanga, Limpopo, North West) rivers and dams might also be home to Crocodiles and Hippopotamuses so please make sure you know what else might be in the water before you get into it. Never dive into rivers or dams, as the water may be shallow or filled with debris and it will result in serious injury! The same general rule of thumb applies if you want to cool off in a dam or river, stay in the shallows i.e., water should be below your waist. Because rivers and dams often have murky water and you can’t see the bottom, be careful of where you step, a sudden hole or the end of a rock shelf could get you completely submerged and into trouble in a heartbeat.
If you are being swept downstream in a river, float on your back with limbs on the surface and aim for the side/bank, avoid going under any form of obstruction in the current as you might get trapped underwater. If you see you are going to get washed into something, try to climb onto it as soon as you make contact with it. On the downstream sides of obstructions and the insides of corners you will find calmer pockets of water where the flow is in the opposite direction, this is called an eddy and you can use these calmer eddies to catch your breath, climb out of the water or wait for help.
If you see someone in distress or being swept away, throw or hand them something to hold onto that you can pull them to the side with or that they can hang onto to help them float. Never go in or near flooding rivers or the overflow of dams.
Most of the drownings in South Africa and the world happen in swimming pools and within a few meters of other people/help. So, if you are heading to the pool, make sure you know which is the deep end, avoid diving and jumping in especially if there are lots of other people in the pool. If someone is in distress throw or hand something to them that they can hold onto to help them float or that you can use to pull them to the side. ALWAYS watch children, friends, and family when they are in the water. If you cannot swim, stay in the shallow end.
2. Activity participant or paying customer.
If you are renting some equipment to go and do an activity, please make sure you know how everything works and what it is for. Don’t be shy to ask questions and if something looks heavily worn or bent, politely point it out to the rental company and ask if there isn’t perhaps a different one.
If you are renting boards (paddle, surf, body, SUP) they should come with a leash. If you are renting kayaks or paddle boats, they should come with paddles and some form of lifejacket or PFD (personal flotation device) that will help you float in the event of you falling off the kayak. PLEASE check that you know how to wear the PFD and that it fits you properly. If it seems heavily sun bleached or there are buckles and straps missing, politely ask for a replacement.
If you are not sure how to use the equipment you want to rent, then rather go on a guided activity where you can get some basic instruction and experience in how things work in order for you to get the most fun out of your future equipment rental.
Please be honest with commercial operators when it comes to your health, allergies, fitness, previous injuries, and previous experience levels when booking an activity. It helps them to better prepare for the trip in order to keep everyone as safe, happy and having as much fun as possible.
You should also beforehand ask the operator for proof of industry membership; guides qualifications and you are also welcomed to ask for proof of accident and liability insurance cover. If the operator does not want to share this info with you or has a list of excuses for not having things available, rather go somewhere else.
All activities should start with an indemnity form which you should read or with some operators the staff will explain the indemnity to you. This does not excuse them from taking chances with your health and or safety. This should then be followed by a briefing on what to expect, what to do and how to use any equipment required for the activity. For water-based activities this should include a PFD and if there is whitewater involved a helmet as well. Make sure your equipment fits you properly and if it doesn’t ask for help.
If you are going whitewater rafting and there are trees floating down the river, don’t get on the water.
The key thing for any venue is to make sure that you have enough public information available on what is allowed and what is not; what is available and what is not.
If you allow people to go into a body of water, you need to make sure that there are signs indicating risk/dangers, deep and shallow, things people are not allowed to do and that people are using spaces/places at their own risk.
Be sure to mark whether you have lifeguards or NOT and that it is clearly indicated where swimming is allowed and where it is NOT. Some signage with general guidelines for behavior and what to do in an emergency.
4. Operators and Guides.
Any activity should have a SOP (Standard Operating Procedure), make sure these are up to date and that all guides who are involved with the activity are familiar with it and follow the rules/guidelines/format of the SOP. If there is ever an incident or accident the SOP is one of your key references for why things were done a certain way. You should also make sure that the SOP being used complies with industry minimum standards for safety and equipment.
If you are an operator, you must ensure your SOPs are current and all staff are aware of procedures and minimum standards expected. You should get all staff (including freelancers) to read through SOPs for the activities they run, and they should sign them as well to show that they have read, accept, and understand the SOP’s. When accidents/incidents occur having set standards and procedures in print are vital to show that you have looked at risks and how to mitigate or handle them and this in change can help to argue against negligence if things end up in court or lawyers’ offices.
If you are a freelancer, ask the operator for the activity SOP that you will be guiding and familiarize yourself with it. If they do not have one, proceed with caution. With clients you need to be strict when it comes to what is allowed and what is not, you can do this in a polite and friendly manner, you do not have to be a screaming tyrant. Rules are rules and they are there for the safety of all participants (staff and clients) so follow them and make sure your clients do as well.
Equipment: Things should fit properly, be in good working order and if it is easy to break or lose, take a spare. Important: things really need to fit properly and if a client is too large or too small to fit into essential safety equipment properly, then they should NOT be allowed to participate. If you allow them to do the activity without the required safety equipment and something happens, you (the guide and operator) will most likely be found negligent and held liable.
About the Author:
Deon J Breytenbach, a proud member and expert contributor of SAAIA, worked as a commercial rafting, kayaking, canyoning and abseil guide both locally and internationally. He studied environmental and natural resource management through SAWC and UNISA, qualified as a Swiftwater rescue/ river guide instructor in ’99 and actively trained guides, recreational paddlers, and professionals for over a decade and a half and then took a bit of a break from training. Deon competitively paddled in whitewater extreme races and freestyle whitewater kayaking, representing South Africa on multiple occasions at the ICF Freestyle world championships and was multiple SA Freestyle champion. He was a fluid team paddler and First Ascent performance tester for several years, a regular contributor for Do It Now and Sportscene magazines and is a past APA Instructor and Council member.