January 07, 1988

Article at The Sydney Morning Herald

NEWS | Danger lurks in the surf


AS you frolic in the water under a searing sun this summer, or fish from an isolated rock jutting into the sea-spray, you probably won’t be thinking about the many horrible ways you could die in the water. But there are more than 20 good reasons why you should.

That’s the number of people who died in NSW coastal waters last summer.

The sea is a harsh mistress. but it’s not out there just waiting to take the careless or unsuspecting human. The sea is indifferent to humanity, and that means you have to be careful. Sometimes very careful. 

In the year to August 1987, there were more than 7,000 rescues from NSW beaches by members of the Surf Life Saving Association. Of these, about 619 rescues were at beaches in eastern Sydney.

Maroubra Beach - where two surf clubs operate - led the way, with 251 rescues recorded in the period from July 1986 to August 1987. The beach with the lowest number of rescues was Clovelly, with 24.

In all, there were 39 drownings along the NSW coast between June 1986 and July 1987. Slightly more than half were from beaches, the remainder from boats or fishermen swept off rocks.

“There’s no such thing as an accident when you’re rock fishing,” said Mr Ross Chisholm, an officer of the NSW Department of Agriculture’s fisheries information unit. “It is usually sheer carelessness. If you’re not there taking precautions and looking out for trouble, then you’re asking for it.”

Below is a list of safety measures recommended by experts for three beach and sea-water activities.

THE BEACH. You may hate crowded beaches, but that is where you are safest. Where there are lots of people, there are lifesavers on patrol. Secluded beaches may feel great, but if you are not prepared for an emergency, they can quickly become a nightmare.

Wear protection from the sun. Last year I bumped into an old friend sitting in the sand of Chowder Bay, in Clifton Gardens. His whole body was burnt a bloated red, and I asked him why he didn’t put on some blockout cream.

“My skin’s used to it now. I do it all the time,” he said.

This bravado will serve him well when he arrives at a clinic to slice away what will probably be a case of severe skin cancer. There are a plethora of creams, milks and lotions available with an SPF (sun protection factor) suited to your skin type, and hats are certainly not hard to get, so there are no excuses for getting hideously burnt.

Pick the times you go to the beach. In the height of summer, you can get more out of the sand and surf and reduce dangerous exposure by starting early, before the sun has had a chance to really hot up. The hours of most direct sunlight - between noon and 2 pm - are the worst.

Even when protected from sunburn you still run the risk of sunstroke if you’re exposed for too long. A victim usually feels drowsy and listless, has a headache and looks flushed. If it progresses, the victim may vomit, suffer convulsions and even slip into a coma.

Get the person into shade, douse him or her with cool water, give them plenty to drink (not alcohol!) and - if possible - place an icepack on his or her head. In bad cases, seek medical attention immediately.

If you’re going to swim, don’t pig out first; a stomach cramp can leave you helpless in the water. Above all, don’t drink and swim. In an inebriated state you may decide you can swim to a buoy and back, when in fact you couldn’t make it 30 metres out. As on land, alcohol can lend an exaggerated perception of your abilities.

Humans were not made to be sea-going creatures so don’t expect the wildlife to understand that you mean them no harm. Jellyfish faced with what is to them a large and clumsy beast thrashing in water may be scared into an attack, or else take you as food. Either way, the effect is not pleasant.

The most common stinger is the bluebottle. Blisters appear on the skin when they are contacted by the creature’s tentacles, and the victim can become pale, cold and sweaty. Cramps and nausea usually follow.

The victim should be brought ashore and the skin doused with methylated spirits, or an anti-sting product. Do not douse with water, beer, or accelerants like kerosene. The victim must be kept away from sources of heat and fire. Avoid contact with the stung area. The sting will usually last for a few hours, and the blisters clear in a day or two.

Regretably, there is little you can do to avoid jellyfish, except be vigilant. Their sting and relative invisibility makes them successful marine invertebrates, but painful water companions. Box jellyfish are the most dangerous, their stings having caused a number of deaths in Australian waters

Sharks pose no immediate threat to humans, although this is probably hard to rationalise after all the bad publicity they have received in certain movies over the years. They are attracted by blood, frenzied movements and organic material such as urine.

If you see a shark, the best thing to do is float easily in the water and try to remain calm. The shark has no reason to attack you, and may just graze past in curiosity. Tearing like mad for the shore is not a smart option when you move at less than a metre a second and a shark can travel at 20.

SURFING. Most experienced surfers will tell you that wearing a leg-rope is a good idea, despite the fact that they feel more like a hindrance than a help. Since they were introduced, head and shoulder injuries among surfers have decreased, according to a study done by St Vincents Hospital.

If you’re starting out, make sure you can swim reasonably well, and take on only those waves you’re confident you can handle. At patrolled beaches, surf between red disc markers and away from the red and yellow flags, where the swimmers are.

Don’t take a wave if there are too many riders, wait until there is room. The surfer closest to the shoulder (or wave-breaking zone) has right of way. Don’t shoot across the path of another surfer, and do not surf alone in secluded spots.

Bronte breaks well in north-east and easterly swells, and the south end in southerly swells is a good ride. The beach can suffer some bad rips during the year, including the infamous Bronte Express.

Tamarama is off-limits to boards from 6 am to 6 pm. It is a body surfer’s delight although it can easily become nasty with some of the most ferocious rips in Sydney. Coogee has small surf, great for children and people who don’t like too many waves, but is often covered with seaweed. A reef at the southern end is allright to surf in the larger swells.

All of Maroubra offers a good ride, the north end in eastern and north-eastern winds being the best. Bondi has rips in the south end off the rocks and in front of the old storm drain, and gets decent waves in south and south-east swells. Clovelly is too enclosed for surfing, but fine for swimmers although it suffers from pollution.

McKenzies Bay and Lurline Bay are the beaches you go to when you can really surf. Lurline has a heavy breaking right-hander in large swells, and McKenzies the occasional left-hander.

Pollution is a problem on all of these beaches. Littering by beachgoers, stormwater and sewage discharges do not make for a pretty sight on an incoming swell. The worst beaches are Maroubra, Coogee and Clovelly, with Bronte and Tamarama depending on the wind direction.

The Water Board is spending $328 million to extend sewage outfalls four kilometres out to sea, where theoretically deep currents will carry the effluent south and away from Sydney beaches. By 1991 there will supposedly be no sewage floating on eastern beaches, but critics say that all this will do is allow the sewage to be more diluted before it rolls in.

ROCK FISHING. Safety on the rocks is not often practised, as anyone with a fishing rod seems to think themselves qualified to throw a line from even the most dangerous outcroppings.

Ring up and get a boating forecast; height of swells, incoming tide, winds and so on. Go fishing when there are at least a few hours before the incoming tide. Pick your spot and watch it for half an hour, figuring the wave patterns and where the dangers are.

When you do clamber out to the rocks, don’t do it alone. Never take your eyes off the water for too long. Look at your reel for 10 seconds, check the surf, look at your reel, check the surf again, and so on. Most fishers that get into trouble just fail to see a big wave coming.

Shorts and spiked rubber soles should be worn if the rocks are wet, but if the surface is dry, good soft-rubber soles will do. Long trousers when hit by a wave become heavy, and provide a dragging effect that will help you get sucked under.

If somewhere is too rough, don’t fish there. Some “professionals” ignore this, and have ended up having to be rescued. When you’re on the rocks, make sure you have a five- or 10-metre retreat path in case a large wave spills across.

Places to avoid are Rosa Gully, on the southern end of South Head; just about all areas around The Gap; the rocks at the corner of Bondi beach; and especially Yellow Rock at Malabar, which has one of the highest fatality rates of any rock fishing area in Sydney.