Coastal fatality figures released today by the Royal National Lifeboat Institution (RNLI) show 163 people lost their lives at the UK coast last year – but more than half (58%) didn’t intend to enter the water.
The number of near-misses was even higher, with the RNLI’s UK lifeboat crews and lifeguards saving 460 lives in 2014.
The figures from the Records from the National Water Safety Forum’s Water Incident Database 2010-2014 are revealed as the RNLI launches its 2015 national drowning prevention campaign, Respect the Water, reminding people that our coastlines and waters can be dangerously unpredictable.
The charity is releasing two hard-hitting campaign films, which will be shown in cinemas across the UK and Ireland from tomorrow, 10 July.
The five-year coastal fatality figures portray a consistent picture, with an average of 160 people dying around the UK coast each year.
Of the 803 people who died over the past five years, nearly half were taking part in activities like walking, running, climbing and boating and were, therefore, unlikely to have intended to be in the water.
Men are far more prone to getting into danger at the coast than women. Last year nearly three-quarters (74%) of those who died were men, higher than the two-thirds average over the five-year period.
The RNLI aims to halve the number of coastal deaths by 2024. The charity’s national drowning prevention campaign, Respect the Water, is this year warning people – particularly adult men – to be aware of the dangers of the coastline, as well as the water itself.
Chris Adams, RNLI coastal safety manager, says: ‘Most people heading for a stroll or run along the coastline probably wouldn’t consider a drowning prevention campaign like this relevant to them as they have no plans at all to enter the water.
‘We’re warning people that if they’re going near the water, whatever their activity, they could be at risk and they need to take care. Unexpected dangers like slippery rocks, sudden waves or unstable ground can catch anyone out.’
Jo Wardle’s fiancée Alex Hardy drowned at Hendon beach in Sunderland last year, after slipping and being washed into the sea.
Jo said: ‘Alex and I were walking the dogs along the beach – we used to go there all the time; it was just a normal day. Alex’s dog went down a slipway into the sea but started to struggle. Alex followed, wanting to help, but slipped and banged his head and was then washed out to sea himself. I rushed in, to try and reach him, but the water was just so powerful.
‘A huge search took place, but he was gone – at just 32 years old. It was such a massive shock, how a simple walk at the coast can suddenly turn into tragedy. I am still totally devastated. I respect the sea and coastline more now than ever. I’d urge anyone heading to the coast this summer to be really careful – even if you’re not planning to go into the water, you could still find yourself in danger.’
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The RNLI is also warning people of the unpredictability of the water, including the dangers of cold water and rip currents. Summer air temperatures may be warm but the average UK sea temperature is just 12oc, with many rivers being even colder. Cold water shock, which causes uncontrollable gasping and numbs the limbs, can set in at any temperature below 15oc.
Rips are strong currents of water which can quickly drag people out of their depth. They account for around two-thirds of the environmental-related incidents RNLI lifeguards respond to each year. For those not at a lifeguarded beach, being caught in a rip can prove fatal if they don’t take the right steps to free themselves and make it safely to shore.
Chris Adams from the RNLI adds: ‘The water might look inviting, but it can be dangerously unpredictable. Cold water is a major risk for anyone who ends up in the water – intentionally or otherwise. The body’s reaction to sudden immersion in cold water will trigger uncontrollable gasping, which can draw water into the lungs and lead to drowning. The coldness will also gradually shut down the use of limbs, making it very difficult even for strong swimmers to stay afloat.
‘Currents under the surface can overwhelm even the strongest swimmers. They drag people out of their depth so quickly, and if you try to swim against them you’ll become exhausted.
‘We want people to enjoy the water but to make sure they respect it. Over 160 lives are lost around our coasts each year but many of these losses could be avoided if people acknowledge the dangers and follow some basic safety advice.’
The campaign will run during the summer, through channels including cinema, outdoor, radio and online. The charity is also running tailored safety programmes, targeted at those who participate in the activities which account for a large number of coastal incidents each year.
For example, a scheme urging divers over 50 to get a health check before their next dive, and another reminding kayakers to carry a means of calling for help and keep it within reach.
Those interested in finding out more about the dangers of the coast can visit www.rnli.org/respectthewater or search #RespectTheWater on social media.