When we head to the beach we fear riptides and sharks, but there is a much more common danger that can strike in as little as two feet of water and sends thousands to the emergency rooms each year. When waves slam swimmers down, the swimmers can suffer broken bones, concussions and even paralysis just 10 feet from the dry sand.
Growing up in Hawaii I witnessed it over and over: visitors playing in the break zone, so close to shore that they felt safe, not realizing that one of the most dangerous spots is where the waves crest and break onto the shore. It seemed all too common to see ambulances taking people to the hospital with dislocated shoulders, concussions and sometimes paralysis.
As I researched this story I found out it's a repeated occurrence at beach destinations nationwide.
Over a three-year period at the emergency room at Beebe Healthcare in Lewes, Delaware, they reported 1,519 swimmers with break-zone wave injuries that required treatment.
"The people who are getting injured are really the bathers typically not in a great deal of water," said Dr. Paul Cowan, who directs emergency medicine at Beebe Healthcare and has treated many of those patients.
"The energy from a three- or four-foot wave can have the same effect as being hit by small compact car traveling at 20 or 30 miles per hour," he said. And while the injuries can be minor, like fractures of the arms and legs, the potential for paralysis and death is real.
Josh Basile, who spent his childhood swimming at the beach, knows that all too well. The then-college student was on a family vacation in Delaware in 2004 when he became one of those statistics.
"I was in waist-high water with my back to the ocean when a wave picked me up and slammed me head-first against the ocean floor," he said.
Basile was left a quadriplegic. He's now an attorney who represents the catastrophically injured.
Ken Haskett, a Los Angeles lifeguard and water safety expert, has also seen some of those injuries.
"We have a lot of spinal injuries, a lot of shoulder injuries, neck injuries," he said. When I ask him about our misconception that the sand is soft and can’t hurt you if a wave knocks you down onto it, he replies: "That sand, it's like wet cement."
Haskett and I head into the water at Zuma Beach in Malibu. A pretty intimidating swell is hitting the beach at this spot, which is a notorious shore break -- meaning the swells crest and crash very close to the beach. As we fight hard to stay safe and out of trouble, Haskett shares some tips that could help you save your own life if you see a wall of water bearing down on you.
SWIM IN LIFEGUARDED AREAS
Not only can lifeguards pull you out of the water if something goes wrong, but they say that the best rescues are made on land before a swimmer ever hits the water. Lifeguards are there to share information about where it's safe to swim, how to safely enter and exit the water, and whether conditions are safe for beginning swimmers and children. They want you to talk to them, don't be intimidated, your life could depend on it.
THINK LIKE A SURFER
That means you should study the water before you get in. If you've ever seen a surfer arrive at the beach, no matter how great the waves are, they take time to look the water before they get in. Waves come in sets -- some small, then building to bigger ones. They break differently in different parts of the beach, so study the water to see where on the beach the waves are biggest or smallest. What do the small waves in the set look like? What do the big ones look like? How much time is there during the small waves for you to get into the water before the big ones hit?
PANCAKE AND GRAB SAND
If you get caught in the surf zone and a wall of water is bearing down on you, don’t stand tall and brace yourself. Haskett explains why. "It tightens you up and the wave will push you over and slam you into a sandy bottom, possibly hurting your neck, hurting your shoulders, or your arms," he said. Instead of bracing while standing, you should drop down, pancaking your body flat to grab sand. As counterintuitive as it seems this move will keep the force of the wave off your body as the energy of the wave dissipates on the water above you. Yes, you can dive under it, but lifeguards also see injuries where people hit sandbars and reefs when they dive, so your safest bet is to pancake.
WHAT TO DO IF YOU GET TUMBLED IN A WAVE
Sometimes no matter what you do, a wave picks you up and puts you in the spin cycle. In these instances a few strategic moves could save your life. First, Haskett says you should put your hands at the base of your head where it meets your neck lacing, your fingers together. "Grab the back of your head, elbows are in front of you so if you hit the sand you're kind of protecting your head," he said. This is actually hard to do when you are being tossed around like a rag doll, but it does offer some protection. Next -- and this is really hard but incredibly helpful -- tell yourself to relax. Surfers call it a hold-down, when you feel like you can't get up for air, but it passes fast. Not panicking conserves oxygen and energy.
KEEP YOUR HEAD ON A SWIVEL WHEN YOU GET OUT
I spoke with Captain Joe Donnelly of the water patrol in Bethany Beach, Maryland, and he said the majority of accidents that they see happen when swimmers are getting out of the water. The maxim of the ocean is to never turn your back on the water, but that is physically impossible when trying to get back to the beach. Instead, time your exit so it's after the big swells in a set and in the smaller waves. Don't lollygag in the break zone, and keep your head on a swivel. If you see a big one coming and you don't think you can make it to the beach, head back out to deeper water and hit the deck in that pancake move to grab sand and wait out a better time to exit.