A small article in today’s Hootsmon praises the 47 RNLI stations around Scotland’s long coast for dealing with over 200 call-outs (a.k.a. “shouts”) over the last year. This is apparently a record and is being explained by the growing number of people who chose to spend their holidays in the British Isles and not on some sun-soaked foreign shore.
Any regular reader of this blog will know that I’m a big fan of the RNLI and especially of all the hardy, brave volunteers that man their lifeboats. No matter that the weather is currently freezing or that, a month ago, they were out in Force 10 gales; if there are people in peril on the sea they are out there on the edge, saving lives and getting little for it beyond thanks and the reward of knowing a tough job was well done.
Which brings us to the nub of this blog. Of the 200+ shouts, barely half were unavoidable incidents like weather, disabled boats/engines or floating wreckage damage. The rest were people putting to sea badly prepared or not understanding how the sea behaves or what it is capable of at short notice. This blog is intended as an easy guide for townies and not for seasoned mariners, so the latter must forgive me stating what might seem the bleeding obvious.
On The Shore Most people access the seashore over a beach. These may be sand or shingle, with the former offering the easiest walking on the wet or hard sand. Wear stout shoes with waterproof soles. The boundary between dry and wet sand is the high tide mark. After storms this can be strewn with seaweeds that are both slippery and stinky as they rot.
Note that tides in Scotland are much bigger than in the Mediterranean and most tourist destinations. A 5m difference is common, with 7m during ‘spring’ tides (nothing to do with the season: they happen 2-4 days after a full or a new moon—basically every two weeks. In between springs are ‘neap’ or lesser tides when the difference can be a small as 3m.
The key thing to remember is that, unless you go regularly, your favourite beach will always appear different, depending on the tide and what seas are running. Seas (i.e. waves) are created by wind and storms far out to sea. Most of Scotland’s West coast is sheltered or inlets and it is only in the outer Clyde and exposed shores like Tiree and the Uists that you will witness stormy waves. The East and North coasts are different, especially when the wind is steady in the East or a storm is raging out towards Norway. 2m waves are not unusual and they will reach 10-15m up the beach. They also create powerful undertows that can suck a swimmer into deeper waters.
Walking the sands, especially a distance from the water, is harmless. But most Scottish beaches also have rocks—both flat & sloping areas and (less common) jumbles of boulders. Both tend to be covered with the small varieties of seaweed (big 2m kelp grows below the low tide mark). Whether green or brown, all seaweeds are slippy so, if you must go rockpooling, walk on them at your peril. Also, the closer to the water, the wetter and slipperier they are, so take a companion: it’s not unknown for people to slip, bang their head and wind up unconscious in chilly water.
Some of the rocks are large and tempting to explore. But keep an eye on the tide. Black Rocks in Burntisland Road, Eyebroughy (pron “Eebris”) West of Fidra and Cramond Island all get cut off at high tide, with the first actually submerging in spring tides. Avoid getting caught: 36 of the RNLI rescues were of people who had ignored this advice.
Similar care applies when you walk along beaches under cliffs. If there is no high tide mark, chances are the whole beach submerges at high tide so either know you have your timing right or avoid here altogether. The cliffs between Tantallon Castle and Seacliff beach have caught many, as has Kinghorn tricky beach between the Vows and Hummel Rock; thankfully all were rescued.
In the Water Paddling along the shore holds few perils beyond stubbing a toe or a cut from a sharp rock or (rarely) broken glass, unless the waves are large. But all waters around Scotland are cold. A calm summer’s day can be deceptive because water can be warmed over 20degC as it creeps up the beach. But 50m or less offshore, its usual chill 14degC can come as a shock.
For this reason, swimming out to rocks or islands can get you in trouble, especially if you get chilled by staying in too long. Hypothermia starts with shivering and losing strength so don’t push your luck or succumb to bravado in front of friends. Modern wetsuits are not restrictive and will allow you far longer in the water if that’s your desire. They also make sensible wear for kayaks, sea canoes and any form of small boat where you are likely to end up in the water. Life vests are a smart addition to any outfit you wear on board
If you are more adventurous and want to body or board surf, wetsuits are essential. The same applies to surfing in sea kayaks. And If you are doing it anywhere near rocks, a helmet is also a sensible accessory because once yo get rolled in a breaking wave, just finding the surface is a major task, let alone knowing what you’re getting swept towards.
In all cases, you should consider wind and tide before you enter the water. An offshore wind will take you further offshore. Unless you know what you’re doing take to the water only where the wind is blowing on-shore. And, while the tide usually moves slowly, it can reach 5knots at mid-tide over places like the Brigs of Fidra as the Forth fills or empties. That’s much faster than you can swim—and probably faster then you can paddle over a long stretch.
On the Water Messing about in boats can be huge fun, even when the weather isn’t perfect. Especially on the West coast, Scotland offers many boating opportunities that do not require you to risk open sea. But boat operation is a huge topic and one that would take several blogs to do justice. Therefore I’ll leave you with a few on-line contact points for exploring these options:
- General Water Safety: http://www.nationalwatersafety.org.uk/
- Royal Lifesaving Society: http://rlssonline.com/index.php?option=com_joomdragdrop&view=custom&Itemid=417
- RYA (Royal Yachting Association—boat training): http://www.rya.org.uk/Pages/Home.aspx
- MCA (Maritime & Coastguard Agency—boat licensing): http://www.dft.gov.uk/mca/
- RNLI (Lifeboats) http://www.rnli.org.uk/
If you only visit one of those on the list, make it the last one and consider giving a donation when you do. When you’re lying winded at the bottom of a sea cliff and the tide’s on the flood, it might be too late.