Even a lifetime of pool swimming here in sunny Southern California isn't preparation enough for the unforgiving nature of the sea. Last year, Los Angeles County lifeguards rescued a record 14,096 people from the ocean.
Although records aren't kept on who gets rescued, Lt. Mike Cunningham of the Los Angeles Fire Department's Lifeguard Operations says the majority is teens and young adults who misjudged their abilities.
"Ocean swimming zaps your energy a lot quicker than in a pool," says Clay Evan, director of the Southern California Aquatic Masters Swim Club in Santa Monica. "Rough water and cold temperatures can throw you off balance and contribute to fear and disorientation in the water."
Experts agree, there is no conquering the ocean, and swimming in it takes power and a heightened sense of awareness at any level.
The two biggest dangers:
* Inshore holes: California's El Nino-ravaged beaches are now riddled with holes in their sandy ocean bottoms. Those holes could suddenly put beach-goers in over their heads. Cunningham says to look for quick drop-offs anywhere from where the waves break to just a couple of yards off the dry sand. Also be wary of sudden drops around rock jetties and piers.
* Rip currents: These narrow channels of water that subtly, but powerfully, direct waves and swimmers away from the shore account for 80% of rescues, Cunningham says. They are commonly called riptides but actually have nothing to do with tides.
Swimmers caught in a rip current who try to swim to shore will find themselves tiring quickly. The solution: Float and swim parallel with the current. With luck, you can eventually swim out of the current.
Always check with lifeguards for these two dangers before entering the ocean.
Other ocean safety tips include:
* Never swim alone.
* Know a basic survival float.
* Watch the horizon, not the shore. You should always be aware of what's coming behind you.
* Swim near an open lifeguard tower in a designated area--between the two red flags.
* Check the beach information board, if one exists, for water temperature, conditions and tides.
* Wear swim fins for extra power.
For distance swimming (in addition to the above):
* Go out just past the surf line (no farther than 100 yards), where the waves build up and break. Swim parallel to shore.
* Know your "get out" point and what it looks like from both the water and the shore.
* Start with shorter distances than you would in a pool. Build endurance with interval training.
* Remember to reserve enough energy for the swim back to shore, usually the most rigorous part.
* If you are unsure of your abilities, start with an inlet beach with little or no surf.
* Don't push your limits.
If you're in danger:
* Don't fight the direction of the water.
* Stay calm and conserve energy.
* Get in a comfortable position, such as floating on your back, that allows you to breathe.
* When you are rested, wave with one or both hands so someone on shore can see you.
Additional source: Melon Dash, director of the Transpersonal Swimming Institute in Berkeley.