The yellow flag flutters in the sea breeze at the Racó beach in the popular resort of Cullera, in Valencia province. A 56-year-old man is in the water, playing with a young girl. The waves begin to push them out to sea, and two lifeguards head into the water to help them. The girl is fine, but the man has suffered a heart attack. The accident, which took place August 3, is one of many reported since the start of the summer holiday season. Of the 235 drownings this year, 85 of them were in July alone, according to a report by the Royal Spanish Federation of Rescue and Lifesaving (RFESS). A further 30 deaths have occurred in the first two weeks of August.
Rip currents are not the typical currents found between the waves. They are like rivers that pull swimmers out to sea”
Geologist Antonio de la Cruz
“We don’t want to criminalize anybody, but there are people who take no notice of the flags,” say sources at Cullera’s town hall. “We have to call on bathers to be responsible.”
Around 58 percent of deaths this year occurred on beaches. Antonio de la Cruz, a geologist who helped prepare a report by the Camilo José Cela University, blames powerful rip currents. “These are not the typical currents found between the waves, instead, they are like rivers that pull swimmers out to sea,” he says.
These types of currents are produced by gusts of wind that whip up the waves. The problem, particularly on beaches in Valencia, is that a huge amount of water reaches the shoreline, but the lack of depth means there isn’t enough space, and it is pushed out powerfully to sea.
The Las Salinas beach in Asturias, on Spain’s Cantabrian coast, is well known for its rip currents. On July 28, five friends had to be rescued when strong waves prevented them from leaving the water. Four were saved, but a 30-year-old woman later died.
Cullera’s environment department warns that recent storms have strengthened rip currents in the water off its beaches, but that bathers are unaware of the danger. Five deaths occurred in the first three days of August in Valencia.
Spain’s Health Ministry has issued a series of recommendations to swimmers to avoid accidents at the beach, river, or in the swimming pool.
- Choose safe places to bathe that are supervised by lifeguards.
- Keep an eye on children at all times when they are in the water or near it. Do not let them swim unaccompanied.
- If you do not know how to swim or are not a strong swimmer, use a life vest when in the water.
- Always follow the warnings indicated by the three-flag system (green, yellow, red).
- Drinking alcohol before bathing reduces one’s ability to react to danger, and could lead to unsafe behavior.
- Swimming at night is very dangerous.
- Leave the water as quickly as possible if you begin to feel tired or cold.
- Before entering the water, test the temperature.
- Wait two hours after eating before taking a swim.
The RFESS’ report shows that 68 percent of deaths happen in areas where there are no lifeguards. Carlos Urquía, a doctor with the Spanish Red Cross’s health and rescue department, highlights the danger of swimming on beaches without lifeguards. “If something happens, who is going to help us?” The Red Cross has no figures suggesting an increase in the number of drownings, precisely because its lifeguards have been able to intervene to prevent fatalities. More often than not they are required to assist vacationers who have suffered a heart attack or are suffering from sunstroke.
The majority of victims in July were men over the age of 45. “Older people are more likely to suffer from illnesses related to cholesterol, obesity or tobacco,” says Urquía.
The RFESS also warns that 9.8 percent of drownings over the last seven-and-a-half months have involved children aged under 10, the vast majority of them occurring in swimming pools where a lifeguard was not present.
Last week, an eight-year-old child who did not know how to swim drowned after falling into a reservoir in Níjar, Almería province, according to the EFE news agency. “It is essential to teach small children how to swim,” says Urquía.
Although it has no figures for 2014, the National Statistics Institute reports 478 people drowned in 2011, 438 in 2012, and 422 in 2013.
Insurance company Mapfre says the most frequent causes of drowning are ignoring lifeguards’ warnings, being unable to swim, and being unfamiliar with the water.