How Do Tides Work? And Other Sea Lessons We Need To Learn

“The ocean stirs the heart, inspires the imagination and brings eternal joy to the soul.” – Robert Wyland 

Author Sandy Gringas once wrote: “At the beach, life is different.” And for me, that perfectly sums up our natural passion, as humans, for sweeping coastlines and empty sand dunes. By our very nature, we are drawn to the sea – whether because we live nearby, or because it is our dream holiday destination. It rouses stirring feelings of passion, of freedom and of unadulterated joy that can be found in so few of our urban surroundings.

I have always been lucky to live near the sea and, with an ex-beach lifeguard as a parent, swimming was as much an important part of my upbringing as walking or running. Not only were we pushed at lessons and life-saving club, we were also thrown head first (Sometimes literally) into the great outdoors, open water swimming and the sea. We were taught about risk, about managing and mitigating dangers, and about how to get ourselves out of trouble if we needed to. We understood entirely the potential problems we could encounter when in unknown water, and we were prepared for it.

Red and yellow flags were just a part of the scenery, when we spent a hot summers day on the beach, and what they meant was as ingrained in our minds as our 3X tables.

Not everyone is as lucky as I have been, to be able to grow up beside the coastline and with the kind of family that actively encouraged me to get dirty. In place of that, we look to our schools and curriculum to teach our children about potential dangers – but, given that we live on our island, coastal safety is one area that is desperately lacking.And as soon as we fail one generation in their water safeness knowledge, it becomes increasingly difficult to repair the damage.For a lot of our beach education, as a nation, we rely heavily on organisations like the RNLI and the Coastguard (And it is worth pointing out they do an excellent and vital job). The RNLI operate youth education teams, and offer in-school visits alongside educational resources to help (Predominantly primaries) get a better grasp of coastal learning. Alongside the coastguard, they also supply online materials for members of the public, about how to stay safe at the beach. 

But is this enough?

The reality is, both charity and volunteer run organisations can only do so much. Even whilst targeting ‘at risk’ areas, where people are less exposed to the ocean and its dangers until they travel, they can’t address a significant absence in formal education on beach safety. This should be an in-built part of schooling, a given, rather than an expectation for not-for-profits to fill the gap.At the UKs widest point, it is 500km across (Or 311 miles). That’s only a 6 or 7 hour drive, which makes a weekend trip to the seaside a possibility no matter where you live.With this in mind, a top priority should be educating everyone, whether they live inland or on the coast, about the dangers of tides, currents and large swell. It should be a given that at some point in their lives, most members of the public will likely find themselves at the beach. With a lack of knowledge, it is increasingly easy to become cut off, or at risk.

In 2018, RNLI beach lifeguards performed over 3 million (3,430,580) preventative actions across the country, attended 19,449 beaches, and aided 32,207 people. Lifeboats launched 8,964 times, and overall rescue services saved 329 lives.

Whilst we continue to flock to our beaches in ever-growing numbers, we need to ask if there is a better way to teach children about the dangers of the outdoor world – and why it is not actively encouraged in schools as a part of everyday education.It was a shock to me to learn that there were people in the UK that didn’t understand the tides, and yet last summer I was asked on more than one occasion “where the water went” by children and adults alike.For those of us that have grown up with an understand of the ocean, it seems like a daft question – but when we fundamentally fail to introduce this environmental element into the school curriculum, with clear science that supports the knowledge of tidal cut-offs, rip currents and coastline, we can’t be surprised that our national knowledge of marine science is somewhat lacking.

“The sea has never been friendly to man. At most it has been the accomplice of human restlessness.” – Joseph Conrad    

Personally, I think there are 5 particular things we need to start teaching in classrooms:

  • How tides work (Reading them, checking them, preparing for them if going on beach walks)How to recognize dangers in our surroundings (Loose cliffs, old pyrotechnics)How to recognize rip currents, and how to escape them.The flag system, beach lifeguards and who to go to for helpHow to help if nobody is there (The 999 call, and rescue equipment)

How tides operate is a fundamental understanding that needs to be addressed immediately. Nobody should be under any illusion of “where the water goes”, and it is a strikingly obvious issue that could be resolved with education and understanding. This goes for rip currents too, which is unarguably a vital aspect of staying safe at the beach.The beach should be enjoyed by everyone, and realistically can never be a fully safe place. Respect for the sea is crucial when taking to the water, and giving children the tools to enact that will only keep people safer in the long run.

If we spend the time and money on educating our children, then as generations pass we should all have a much healthier (and ultimately more enjoyable) relationship with the rugged and beautiful coast we are surrounded by. Not only will it benefit beachgoers, it also has an application across all outdoor play and activities. It would provide everyone with the skills they need to navigate outside with a ‘Risk V Benefit’ mindset, rather than coming across danger with little understanding and without the tools to help them find out more.    

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