What is Respect the Water?

Respect the Water (RTW) is the RNLI’s national drowning prevention campaign.

Around 190 people die each year around the UK and Irish coasts - and we want to change this. The RNLI has a goal to halve the number of coastal drownings by 2024 and Respect the Water is playing a key role in this.

Who is the campaign aimed at?

Current drowning figures show a clear gender divide, with men accounting for over two-thirds of those who die. So, while this campaign will be seen by millions, we are specifically targeting men - particularly those aged between 16 and 39 years, who are more likely to take risks.

What are we saying to people?

The campaign headline: 'Treat the water with respect. Not everyone can be saved' aims to emphasise why the RNLI is running the campaign, and the need for people to take responsibility for their actions around water.

The main Respect the Water safety messages inform people about the highest risks and emphasise that British and Irish waters are dangerously unpredictable.

The main risks that catch people out are:

•Unexpected entry – around half the people who drown slip, trip or fall into the water.

•Cold water shock – triggered in water temperatures lower than 15⁰C (the average temperature of UK waters is 12⁰C) - it can steal the air from your lungs and leave you helpless in seconds.

•Rip currents and waves – rip currents can travel up to the same speed as an Olympic swimmer (4.5mph) and can pull even the strongest swimmers out to sea. Unexpected waves can quickly knock people off their feet.

How is Respect the Water being promoted?

We want this year’s RTW campaign to be bigger than ever. From 9 June to 1 September, RTW adverts will be seen and heard in cinemas, on billboards, online, and on the radio around the UK and Republic of Ireland. We’re also seeking support from celebrities and trialling TV advertising on catch up TV channels during programmes that are popular with young men. 

Know the risks so that you can make small changes that will help keep you and others safe.

Whatever you're doing

  • Be aware of the dangers.
  • Know your limits and don't take risks.
  • Go with others and look out for each other.
  • Make sure your phone is charged so you can call for help if you come across anyone who needs it.

At the beach and in the water

Where to be: In the summer head to a lifeguarded beach, between the red and yellow flags.
Before going into the water:
Do the conditions exceed your ability? Swimming in the sea is very different to swimming in a pool.
When you enter:
Take a moment to acclimatise to the water temperature.
While you're in:
Make sure you have someone watching from the beach to provide shore cover. Make sure they have a way to call for help.

have a way to call for help.

Near open water

Where to be: Keep away from the edge. Stick to designated paths. Beware of uneven, unstable or slippery ground.
What to look for:
Read safety signs. Always seek local advice on the tides to make sure you don't get cut off.
Reduce the risk:
Avoid walking alone or at night. Always make sure you have a way to call for help.

On the water

Keep buoyant: Fatigue can kick in quickly. Wear a suitable personal flotation device – it could save your life. See our guidance on lifejackets and buoyancy aids (PDF 3.26 MB).
Be seen:
Carry a means of calling for help in case you do end up in trouble.
Have shore cover:
If you are alone on the water, tell someone ashore your plans and what time you expect to be back.

If you find yourself in the water unexpectedly

Around half the people who die at the coast slip, trip or fall into the water. They never intend to get wet.

Take a minute: The initial shock of being in cold water can cause you to gasp and panic. Effects of cold water shock pass in less than a minute so don’t try to swim straight away.
Relax and float:
Float on your back while you catch your breath. Try to get hold of something that will help you float.
Keep calm:
Once you're calm, call for help. Swim for safety if you are able.

If you see someone else in trouble

Call for help: Call 999 or 112. Ask for the coastguard.
Throw them a line: Have something that floats or that they can hold on to? Throw it to them.
Stay safe: Do not enter the water yourself. Too many people drown trying to save others.

Stay safe: Do not enter the water yourself. Too many people drown trying to save others.

during stormy weather

Check the forecasts: Keep a keen eye on the forecasts and tides and always seek local advice in advance.
Check your surroundings: Storms can change the landscape of some beaches, changing or damaging access points, or even creating new areas for rip currents.
Beware of large waves: Even from the shore, large breaking waves can sweep you off your feet and drag you out to sea.

Cold water shock

The effect on the body of entering water 15°C and below is often underestimated. This shock can be the precursor to drowning.

Underwater shot of crew training in the sea survival pool at RNLI College

Photo: RNLI / Nigel Millard

Underwater shot of crew training in the sea survival pool at RNLI College

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What's the risk?

Anything below 15°C is defined as cold water and can seriously affect your breathing and movement, so the risk is significant most of the year.

Average UK and Ireland sea temperatures are just 12°C. Rivers such as the Thames are colder - even in the summer.

What happens?

Cold water shock causes the blood vessels in the skin to close, which increases the resistance of blood flow. Heart rate is also increased. As a result the heart has to work harder and your blood pressure goes up. Cold water shock can therefore cause heart attacks, even in the relatively young and healthy.

The sudden cooling of the skin by cold water also causes an involuntary gasp for breath. Breathing rates can change uncontrollably, sometimes increasing as much as tenfold. All these responses contribute to a feeling of panic, increasing the chance of inhaling water directly into the lungs.

This can all happen very quickly: it only takes half a pint of sea water to enter the lungs for a fully grown man to start drowning. You could die if you don't get medical care immediately.

How can you minimise the risk?

If you enter the water unexpectedly:

  • Take a minute. The initial effects of cold water pass in less than a minute so don’t try to swim straight away.
  • Relax and float on your back to catch your breath. Try to get hold of something that will help you float.
  • Keep calm then call for help or swim for safety if you’re able.

If you’re planning on enjoying the water:

  • Check conditions - including water temperature - before heading to the coast. Visit magicseaweed.com for full surf reports in the UK and Ireland.
  • Wear a wetsuit of appropriate thickness for the amount of time you plan to spend in the water and the type of activity you're doing, if entering.
  • Wear a flotation device. It greatly increases your chances of making it through the initial shock. See our guidance on lifejackets and buoyancy aids (PDF 3.3MB).

Our seas and rivers are cold enough to leave you helpless in seconds. Treat water with respect, not everyone can be saved.

Learn more about cold water shock and see its effects in our Magazine article: 

Cold water shock: A bolt from the blue.

Rip currents

In the UK, the majority of RNLI Lifeguard incidents involve rip currents. They are a major cause of accidental drowning on beaches all across the world.

Demystifying rips

Diagram to show how to swim out of a ripRips are strong currents running out to sea, which can quickly drag people and debris away from the shallows of the shoreline and out to deeper water.

They tend to flow at 1–2mph but can reach 4–5mph, which is faster than an Olympic swimmer.

Rips are especially powerful in larger surf, but never underestimate the power of any water. They are also found around river mouths, estuaries and man-made structures like piers and groynes.

How to spot and avoid a rip current

Rip currents can be difficult to spot, but are sometimes identified by a channel of churning, choppy water on the sea's surface.

Even the most experienced beachgoers can be caught out by rips, so don’t be afraid to ask lifeguards for advice. They will show you how you can identify and avoid rips.

The best way to avoid rips is to choose a lifeguarded beach and always swim between the red and yellow flags, which have been marked based on where is safer to swim in the current conditions. This also helps you to be spotted more easily, should something go wrong.

If you do find yourself caught in a rip:

- Don’t try to swim against it or you’ll get exhausted.
- If you can stand, wade don’t swim.
- If you can, swim parallel to the shore until free of the rip and then head for shore.
- Always raise your hand and shout for help.

If you see anyone else in trouble, alert the lifeguards or call 999 or 112 and

Tides

Tide times and heights vary throughout the month and can easily catch you out if you haven’t checked them.

The causeway at St Michael’s Mount in Cornwall which is revealed at low tide and covered as tide rises

Photo: RNLI / Nigel Millard

The causeway at St Michael’s Mount in Cornwall which is revealed at low tide and covered as tide rises

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Tidal cut-off 

Swimming and other watersports aren't the only ways that people get into trouble at the beach. Getting cut off by the tide also contributes to a significant number of RNLI rescues every year.

Because tide times and heights vary throughout the month, a beach that was clear yesterday at 5pm might be completely covered in sea at the same time today. 

Tides have a reputation for being unpredictable, but really they follow a timetable more reliable than most trains! There are two different types: spring and neap.

Spring tides have greater depth range between high and low water, so at high tide the water comes in further up the beach.

Neap tides have less variation, so at high tide the water won't come in as far.

Check the tide conditions and your surroundings

The UK and Ireland have some of the biggest tidal ranges in the world.

To avoid getting cut off by the tide:

  • Before you head out, make sure it’s safe. Check the tide tables.
  • While you’re out, be aware of your surroundings and the tide’s direction. 

A beach can seem like a vast playground but the tide can come in surprisingly quickly. 

As the tide moves up and down the beach, the depth of the water changes throughout the day, sometimes by as much as 10 metres.

As the tide comes in, simply walking further up the beach and away to safety might not be an option.

If you've walked round to another cove at low tide, or walked around an outcrop of rocks, the water can soon block your way back as the tide turns. If the cove you're in doesn't have steps or access of its own, you could be in trouble.

Don’t get cut off by the tide, check them

You can find out more information about tides in your area through tide tables, apps, weather news or local websites.

You can also get local tidal information from the Harbour Master, tourist information centre and some seaside retail outlets. 

ask for the coastguard.

Waves

Waves are great fun, but they can be dangerous. Understanding how they work will keep you safer.

A large wave breaking at Porthtowan Beach

Photo: RNLI / Nathan Williams

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Understand waves

Powerful breaking waves have the potential to bring out the big kid in all of us. They are one of the most exciting and impressive features of our UK and Irish coastlines and they are the primary force shaping coastal change. 

It’s important for anyone who visits the coast to know the basics about waves so that they can keep themselves and others safe.

Waves are formed by friction when the wind blows across the surface of the sea, causing a swell as water particles rotate and move forwards. They can also be caused by seismic activity.

The movement of a wave up the beach is known as the swash, its movement down the beach is known as the backwash. Depending on which is stronger, waves can be either constructive or destructive.

Size and power

Aerial view of a busy beach on a sunny day

The size and power of a wave is influenced by three main factors:

  • how strong the wind is
  • how long it has been blowing
  • how far the wave has travelled (known as the fetch).

How steeply a beach slopes or shelves and the topography of the sea bed near the beach will also affect the size and type of wave.

On the south coast of England, south-east winds (ones originating from the south-east and heading north-west), have less open sea across the English Channel than south-west winds blowing in from the Atlantic Ocean.

So as a basic rule of thumb:

  • south-east winds have a shorter fetch and cause smaller waves
  • south-west winds have a longer fetch and cause larger and more powerful waves.

Waves move in sets and the ‘seventh wave’ – the bigger wave in the middle of a set – often comes further up the beach. That it always happens on the seventh wave is a myth, but sometimes it does!

Spilling waves

Spilling waves are softer and more consistent waves that break gradually as they approach the shore. They are ideal for beginner board riders. Start off in the shallow white water before you progress to deeper water and unbroken waves.

Dumping waves

Dumping waves break powerfully in shallow water and should be avoided. They most commonly occur at low tide and break quickly with a lot of force making them dangerous for beginners.

Surging waves

When a wave breaks it loses some of its power and momentum. Watch out for surging waves - they don’t break, so they can knock you off of your feet more easily and drag you into deeper water.

Our four top tips

Huge wave crashing high over the harbour wall and lighthouse in Wick Bay

1. Wave dodging

Wave dodging is for sunny, calm days and gentle waves!

It may seem fun to wait for a wave to sweep up the beach or along a harbour wall, but only 15cm of water can knock you off your feet. Bear this in mind when the weather is stormy or conditions are rough.

And don’t be caught out by the ‘seventh wave’. Remember that the wave in the middle of a set is often bigger and can reach further up the beach or along the promenade.

Enjoy the power of the water from a safe and respectful distance - preferably from a window seat in a cafe with a warm cup of tea!

2. Get to know rips

Rips are strong currents running out to sea between waves, which can quickly drag people and debris away out to deeper water.

They are especially powerful in larger surf, but never underestimate the power of any water.

Find out how to identify rip currents and what to do if you ever find yourself caught in one.

3. Know your limits

The right kinds of waves offer a lot of fun, but always stay mindful of your own limits - not just physically but in experience.

Rough and choppy water, strong currents (such as those that can occur during bad weather and spring tides) and dumping waves inspire thoughts of adventure, but they can quickly sap even the most experienced sea users of energy.

If the water is rough, don’t go in. If you feel conditions change while in the water, err on the side of caution and get out until they are calm enough to go in again.

4. Always plan ahead

  • Plan your trips to the beach beyond packed lunches and paddle boards.
  • Consult tide times and local knowledge to make sure it’s safe to be out.
  • In lifeguarding season, always choose a lifeguarded beach and swim between the red and yellow flags.
  • When the sea conditions are rough, enjoy the waves from a respectful distance