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Beach Safety Tips for Enjoying California Beaches this Summer

Beach Safety Tips for Enjoying California Beaches this Summer

Summer weather took its sweet time to arrive in the Bay Area this year. But now that we are well into the season, beach plans are on the rise and so are sunburns, dehydration, and water accidents. The good news is that by following a few simple guidelines, you can have your fun in the sun while staying safe in the sand and surf.

Washington Township Medical Foundation (WTMF) family medicine and sports medicine physician, Steven Zonner, DO, an expert on concussions and other sports-related injuries, relishes spending the day at the beach with his family. Dr. Zonner has always loved swimming and has fond memories from his youth of swimming at Jones Beach in New York, Lake Michigan, Lake Tahoe, Donner Lake, and all along the California coast.

“I love swimming and wherever we lived when I was growing up, I would find the best beaches for swimming,” says Dr. Zonner. “The pleasure for me comes from being outdoors and being active. Whether you swim, play Frisbee, or build sandcastles, fresh air and physical activity in the company of family and friends is good for you.”

Northern California has some of the most beautiful beaches in the world, but many are not safe for swimming. High tides, rip currents, and sneaker waves can be deadly. These beautiful beaches are wonderful for enjoying scenic vistas, tidepool exploration, hiking, birding, picnics, and beach games.

California ocean bathers need to be on the lookout for rip currents. Rip currents are narrow channels of water on the surface of the sea that rapidly flow offshore. The National Ocean Service reports rip currents can flow at speeds of up to 8 feet per second. The currents can

look deceptively calm, almost flat, between wave systems. They usually start at the shoreline and cut through the surf, pulling along anything or anyone in their path. It is almost impossible for even the strongest swimmers to swim against a rip current. Experts advise you to allow the current to take you out while you reserve your strength, floating on your back as needed. People who have survived rip currents were able to reserve their energy long enough to be rescued or were able to slowly swim back to land farther down the shore.

Sneaker waves are just as dangerous. Sneaker waves get their name from the fact that they are unpredictable. These large and powerful waves can surge far up a beach. The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) in California explains that sneaker waves seem to come out of nowhere and catch beachgoers off guard with enough force to pull a person into the sea. Once in the surf, the BLM warns that survival is unlikely because strong currents, turbulent waves, and icy cold water are difficult to overcome.

The trick to successful beach outings, explains Dr. Zonner, is to be informed about the risks and to take precautions. “Before you even head out to the beach, check the weather forecast and make sure there haven’t been any safety warnings issued by authorities. If the weather is cold and windy, there is a good chance that rough water and high waves will make it too dangerous to go near the surf. And even on the calmest, clearest days, never ever turn your back to the waves.”

Before you go

It is important to choose a beach that is appropriate for your plans and the individuals you are with. The safest beaches have a wide swath of sand where there is plenty of room for setting up towels and beach gear far back from where any waves can reach. Beaches with cell coverage mean you can reach authorities in an emergency, so make sure your phone is fully charged when you head for the shore. If you plan to swim, choose a beach where a lifeguard is stationed.

“When we plan a trip to the beach, the first thing we do is check the weather and wind advisory. We only venture out to swim if the temperature is at least in the 70s,” emphasizes Dr. Zonner.

“Another pro tip,” says the doctor, “is to head out to the beach well-hydrated.” Drinking water in advance can lower your risk of heat exhaustion, an illness that can catch you unaware when you are spending hours active in the sun and ocean. “It is easy not to notice that you are thirsty when you are playing in and around water. But the combination of not having an adequate intake of water and external high temperatures can make you sick. Arriving at the beach well-hydrated can help you avoid the nausea and tiredness that comes with heat exhaustion.”

Dr. Zonner’s tips for beach safety

  • When you first arrive at the beach, read posted signs and heed the instructions from park authorities. Observing the rules can keep you safe and protect marine animals and the environment.
  • Protect yourself from the sun’s rays. You should apply sunscreen at least half an hour before you go into the water to give it time to be absorbed. The American Academy of Dermatology recommends that everyone use a water-resistant sunscreen that is broad-spectrum (protects against UVA and UVB rays) and has an SPF of 30 or higher. Sunburns aren’t just painful. They can damage skin, leading to premature wrinkles and a higher risk of skin cancer.
  • Wearing a hat and sunglasses will give you additional protection. It is also a good idea to bring a beach umbrella or set up a beach tent where you can shelter in the shade while the sun is at its hottest.