Category Archives: Safety

An Analysis Of Open Water Drownings

Any experienced open water swimmer will be, or at least should be familiar with evaluating personal risk on an ongoing basis. (I have written many posts about the Do’s and Don’t’s of open water).

One thing we don’t talk about is drowning, because we put ourselves in the category of people unlikely to join the statistics, just because we are strong, confident and experienced open water swimmers.

In some cases below I can’t separate open water drowning from overall drownings. The IWS report is particularly useful for so doing however.

The Irish Water Safety Association (which promotes open water safety and collates Irish drowning figures and for decades has taught people to swim in open water locations) released a report about drowning rates in open water locations, based on 25 years of data collection up to 2012 (not including 2013 which had higher rates due to an unusually good summer).

The headline figures are startling. An average of 140 people drown every year in Ireland. America’s CDC releases the US figures, and for 2005 to 2009, the annual average is 3,533 (non-boating related). That’s almost 10 per day in the US, of whom two are under 14.

The World Health Organisation places drowning as the third leading cause of unintentional death worldwide, accounting for 7% of all injury related deaths. In 2011, 359,000 people worldwide drowned, 95% of them in poorer countries. As the CDC notes, for every child that drowns, another five receive emergency department treatment, and some will suffer long-term disabilities up to permanent vegetative state.

If you work out per capita rates, you find Ireland is 0.000035% while the US is 0.000013%, almost one-third of Ireland. However the Irish figures do include boating, suicide and fishing industry accidents. The IWS say that the suicide rate figure accounts for one-third to half of the Irish total, so once that’s accounted for the Irish and US accidental drowning figures aren’t that different.

79% of Irish drowning victims are from the local area. One is never more than 100 miles from the sea in Ireland whereas the maximum distance from any sea in the USA is over 1000 miles.

In Ireland 79% of drowning are male, the same as the US.

One of the more surprising statistics from Ireland is where the drownings occur and the figure that prompted me to write this article.

Irish drowing locationsIreland’s relationship with the ship has long been difficult. It is only very recently that we’ve started to embrace our coastal heritage, as traditionally the Irish were extremely wary of the Atlantic, understandable when we take the brunt of the wild Atlantic. We swimmers also know that people here assume the sea is more dangerous.

The locations listed are varied: Lakes, rivers, canals, ponds, quarries, but also bog holes, drains, slurry tanks and reservoirs. We have a weird sport here called Bog Snorkling (yes, it’s worth clicking on that link and yes, I’ve considered it but I hate kick drills) but I’ve not heard of any drowning during this sport. Such drownings are more likely to occur with bog walkers or people footing (cutting & stacking) turf.  Slurry tank deaths are a tragic annual incidence that result when farmers or agricultural workers are overcome by hydrogen sulfide and drown as a consequence).

Inland also includes swimming pools which are less than 1% of drowning as Ireland is too cold for home or outdoor swimming pools to be popular here.

If we look at the breakdown, one noticeable figure stands out.

Irish drowning locations breakdownRivers are three times more likely as a location for drowning than the sea, with lakes, which are often assumed to be safer, almost equal to the sea.

Five counties accounted for 52% of all drownings (Cork, Dublin, Galway, Kerry and Mayo) and the main location in those is rural. As the IWS reports says “while [] rural
drowning presents as principal region in nine counties, the majority of drowning incidents appear to happen in or surrounding urban settlement areas“. County Cork’s river Lee is the highest single location in the figures.

The IWS report also gives a breakdown of the circumstances leading to drowning.

Irish drowning circumstancesSwimming and walking suffered the same level of drowning. If one adds shore angling, more people drown from the shore than from getting into the water. You may recall I wrote a relevant article last year called “There’s no such thing as freak wave, coastal safety is your own responsibility.

You’ve probably heard the old saw that the “strongest swimmers are the ones most likely to drown“. The report says that data on ability is lacking in 42% of cases, 26% are reported as poor and 33% as good, so there is some support for this notion but it’s hardly conclusive.

In contrast, it says that 27% of cases involved some level of intoxication, and maybe a third of those were intentional. In the US, that figure is up to 70%.

All this indicates that the “average” Irish drowning victim is a 42-year-old male, who has drank some alcohol, and is from the local area and the location is more likely to be a river near an urban location.

The average US victim is younger due to an increase in child drownings. Minorities, whether racial or economic, are also more prone to risk.

So what should you do? I tried to come up with a list of things that individual open water swimmers can do outside becoming qualified lifeguards. As swimmers we take absolutely for granted that every child should be taught to swim.

  • As every experienced open water swimmer knows, alcohol should be absolutely avoided. If you see people drinking while around water or looking like they are going to get in, (this happens at the Guillamenes), try to talk them out of swimming. I know how these conversations go, they are not easy. Nonetheless.
  • Use a buddy system. (When you can, most of the time I can’t)
  • If you see small children without an adult, stay on watch yourself until you find their guardian. The figures suggest  that children under 14 should also always be supervised around  water.
  • In your local location, in the absence of signs, flags or lifeguards, communicate any relevant local dangers to others. Wind, wave size, rip currents, tidal currents, exits, submerged rocks, jellyfish, weaver fish etc. I’ve found for example that casual bathers and inexperienced swimmers frequently underestimate wave size and exit difficulty. One problem I occasionally face is that teenagers assume if an “old guy” like me can get in the water, so can they. Even if it’s Force 5 with four metre waves. Be prepared to explain your experience and warn people off.
  • If you don’t have life-saving experience or training, familiarise yourself with some basic techniques, such as throwing lifebuoys or rope, using approaching a drowning victim from behind instead of in front and contacting rescue services. Did you know that 112 is the emergency services number across all of Europe?
  • Be wary at new locations. Be wary at rivers and lakes (hidden obstacles, fast currents, marine craft). Be wary in urban locations.

Related articles

Irish Water Safety 25 year report.

WHO media report on worldwide drowning.

CDC US water injuries, 2005 – 2009.

CDC report on natural water setting drownings.

How To: Using Tide Tables

Because I live and swim in Ireland, I am constantly made aware of the large tidal range here.

I’ve written extensively about tides previously because I feel they are an aspect of open water swimming not appreciated by enough swimmers and because global variations can mean that many people never see nor even realise the apparent extremities of a higher tidal range in other locations. I therefore think a better understanding of tides is important for open waters for safety reasons.

To understand tides better is to increase your knowledge, your range of options and responses and locations and therefore your safety around the coast. Combined with this is that tidal knowledge is sometimes incorrect, that people make very basic incorrect assumptions, that the tide goes directly in and out from the shore regardless of the coastal position, is amongst the most common misconception (which is only true in some locations).

Because of this North East Atlantic tidal variation, most experienced Irish and United Kingdom sea-goers are used to checking tide times when the sea is not immediately visible to them daily.

You can revisit some of the more detailed tide articles I’ve written but for a brief recap let’s remember that each tide is about six hours and fifteen minutes, which means that high and low tide times change each day. A practical consequence of this is that Sandycove, which is usually swum above half-tide, usually only swim times designated for group swims every second weekend. (I am luckier at the Guillamenes as it is deeper water and can be swum on any tide).

Let’s a look at some graphs and data of a daily tide cycle, for the week I’m writing this. This data comes from MagicSeaweed’s Tramore tide report.  The undulating sine wave indicates the rising and falling tide. You can see that there are four tides in each 24 hour period and that each tide on this current cycle varies from just under six hours to about six and a half, with rising tides being longer than falling tides. On each chart you can also see the tide heights of high and low tide. As the four days pass the range between high and low decreases, and the high tide gets lower as the low tide gets higher, all indicators that the tide is moving from a Spring tide to a Neap tide, this pattern of changes from springs to neaps and visa versa repeating every two weeks.

tide graph 2

Tide programs and applications are usually similar in this presentation and a good understanding can mean a quick glance at a tide table can tell you a lot. Since I know that spring tides here are over 5 metres, I can tell immediately from this where in the lunar tide cycle we are. Lower tidal range means lower tidal currents, (not usually a concern for me anyway), important information for some locations.

The other usual tide tool, which I prefer myself, is an annual national tide table. These are currently about €3.00 for the pocket-sized book and I keep one in the car. There are two types of tide table books. Those often issued by the local port or regional publishing company, and a national one. Ireland is small enough that a localised tide table is too specific and of little utility if one is visiting the far side of the country.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI find physical Tide Tables more utilitarian. Always to hand when needed, and useful for longer term planning many months in advance. Free and online tide apps usually don’t provide future tide times.

More importantly in Ireland, the island nature of the country makes the tidal situation far more complicated than many people realise, with the tides washing around the coast in diverging or even opposing directions. Therefore the Tide Table is sub-divided into five regions with further tide time offsets (delays) to even more localised ports. This provides a level of forecasting that gives a far greater level of accuracy.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe detail is of the same type, date and day, high and low water (tide), with tide heights and in this case, moon phase to indicate more easily the spring and neap tides. On the page above can also be seen the variation of other locations from the Cobh location, Cobh being the Standard (reference) Port, i.e. the main tidal location, for the south-west to south-east Irish coast. A fuller list of Secondary Ports for each region is also included.

What’s equally important about these tide tables, and hidden in a note inside the back, is that the data is compiled from the United Kingdom Hydrographic Office, which, bizarrely and which I haven’t mentioned in a couple of years, owns the tide data for all of the United Kingdom and Ireland, and from which it must be licensed. Not that I am in favour of this arrangement, but it does mean you can be sure of the table accuracy, unlike with many free tide applications where license fees haven’t been paid.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

A local sources of tidal information if you are unsure or without any better information is to check any RNLI  or local inshore rescue stations across Ireland and the United Kingdom which at least usually display the month’s local tide times on the outside of the stations. These always use the accurate UKHO (below) tide data. Some broadsheet newspapers can carry the information also in the weather section.

The important points therefore are:

* Tide tables are essential for coastal safety in area with high tidal ranges, such as across the continental European coast.

* When using tide tables note the tidal height as well and high and low tide times.

* If you are using tide prediction tools, safety is important and to this end, the origin of the data is vital.