Swimming, one of the most popular and healthy sports activities in the U.S., has an unfortunate downside; drowning is the third leading cause of accidental death in the country. In some states, like California, Florida, and Hawaii where ocean beaches are plentiful, drowning is the leading cause of injury death for persons under 15 years of age. Of note is that males drown at a significantly higher rate than females; they make up 80 percent of drowning deaths.

Ocean swimming is significantly more challenging than swimming in a pool or most other places as you must contend with waves, the change of the tide, the slope of the beach and strong currents that may be present even when the surface appears calm. Add to that the fact that conditions may change not just from day to day but from hour to hour, and you've got a potentially dangerous swimming environment. As a result, no one but those who already know how to swim in less difficult conditions, such as a pool or a pond, should go into the ocean alone.

Because wave patterns are a good indicator of currents and where deep water and other "surprises" are located, it is recommended that you spend a few moments looking for dangerous rocks and watching the waves before you swim. The most important swim safety rule you should follow, though, is to always use the buddy system or, at the very least, make sure someone onshore is watching you.

Swim with a Friend Near a Lifeguard

The overwhelming majority of drownings involve single swimmers. When you swim with someone else, you have a greater chance of overcoming a problem if it arises. For instance, if one of you begins to falter, the other may be able to help, including signaling for assistance from those on the shore. In keeping with this, it is important to swim within sight of a lifeguard. The United States Lifesaving Association (USLA) has found that, over a ten year period, the chance of drowning at a beach without lifeguard protection is almost five times as great as drowning at a beach with lifeguards.

Toys Will Not Save You

Please remember an air-filled or foam toy is not a safety device. "Water wings," "noodles," and inner-tubes are not to be used instead of life jackets. Although they may be helpful in a backyard pool, these toys were not designed to keep swimmers safe and will almost certainly fail you in the rough waters of the ocean. If you need to wear a real life jacket, than do so.

Learn Rip Current Safety

Some four out of five rescues by USLA-affiliated lifeguards at ocean beaches are prompted by rip currents. A rip tide (as it is sometime called) is formed by surf and gravity; surf pushes water up the slope of the beach and gravity pulls it back creating streams of water moving offshore. If you are caught in a rip current, never fight it by trying to swim directly back to shore. Instead, swim parallel to the shore until you feel the current relax, and then swim to shore. Most rip currents are narrow, just a few yards wide, and a short swim parallel to shore will bring you to safety. Remember, too, that a wave rushing up a beach (wave surge) can knock you down and drag you into the ocean as can large waves on rocky shores.


When lightning or a storm is approaching, leave the water immediately. Do not stay until it begins to rain and do not remain in the water because the lightning appears so far away — just head to shore.

When in Doubt, Enter Feet First

Lifelong injuries, including paraplegia, occur to swimmers every year because they dive headfirst into unknown water and strike the bottom. Bodysurfing can result in a serious neck injury when the swimmer's neck strikes the bottom. Go in feet first, checking for depth and obstructions, your first time. And then use caution when diving or bodysurfing.

Not Your Swimming Pool

Home to thousands of wild creatures, the ocean is one of Earth's greatest marvels. The majority of ocean creatures are harmless to people, but some animals can and occasionally do injure humans. Usually, when an ocean animal hurts a human, it is a defense behavior -- like the jellyfish that stings or the crab that pinches -- because the animal perceives the human as a threat. If you see a man-of-war — which is turquoise in color, looks like a balloon, and has very long tentacles —swim as far away from it as possible. If you are stung by a man-of-war go directly to a lifeguard. If you see a shark fin, get out of the water.

More on Lifeguards

Lifeguards are there to help you. To determine the safety level of the ocean and shoreline, ask the lifeguard on duty what conditions are for the day. She or he will most likely inform you about strong currents and waves, the time of high tide as well as the location of hidden rocks and dangerous shore areas. If, while swimming, you find yourself too tired to continue or unable to escape a current, do not struggle. Instead, float or tread water while calling or waving for assistance.