Take precautions when participating in watersports with the help of our safety guide.  

Water sports such as surfing, bodyboarding and canoeing take place in a wide variety of environments, including out at sea, at the beach, on lakes, and in rivers and streams — all of which provide tremendous opportunities for fun and fitness, but all of which also present potential dangers. Here is our guide to staying safe during water sports.

While there are ‘search and rescue’ services and lifeguard assistance at popular spots, these should be relied on only as a last resort. The best thing when taking part in a water sport is to have as much information and education as possible to prevent you and other people from getting into life-threatening situations in the first place.

Some participants in such activities are members of clubs and channel their activity through organised trips and events, while others use their own equipment on accessible waters without supervision.

It’s often in the latter case that problems occur, when unsupervised and possibly inexperienced people head out and get themselves in trouble — and even put their lives at risk. So, always be accompanied by a more experienced person when you’re starting out in a water sport.

Different water sports activities and environments

The range of water sport activities is diverse, and different safety concerns will arise depending on the activity. For example, the safety requirements and considerations for someone water-skiing on a lake will be different to someone intending to do offshore yacht racing. The environment in which the sport is being practiced will also have a bearing on what safety advice it is necessary to follow.

Boat sports safety

Boating or traveling on the water in some other craft should be fun, and there’s a range of safety information designed especially to help you stay safe when doing so. If you’re planning on using some form of boat or other watercraft, then make sure you follow this safety advice...

  • Always wear a life jacket, even if you think you are a strong swimmer. Life jackets should be adequately suited to the type of boating you are planning on doing.
  • Always check your equipment, including the boat and all safety equipment. Make a checklist to go through each time you go out on the water so that it becomes part of your usual drill.
  • Tell someone where you are going, as well as when you’ll be back. This way they can raise the alarm if you haven’t returned in time.
  • Check the weather forecast before you set out, and make sure you are prepared for whatever weather conditions you may encounter.
  • Get appropriate training, taking into account the craft you are using and where you are planning to go — or take an experienced person with you.
  • Ensure that you have a means of communication with shore and that you have safety equipment on board — including a fire extinguisher, a first aid kit, and distress signals.

Beach sports safety

If you’re venturing into the water to engage in sports such as surfing, windsurfing or swimming, then it will pay to follow these beach safety tips...

  • Do a check of the beach when you arrive. Look for areas that are patrolled by lifeguards and avoid potentially dangerous rocks, piers, or breakwaters.
  • Always wait at least an hour after large meals before going out into the water, and never drink alcohol before going out.
  • Try not to enter the water alone, or at least have someone keeping watch.
  • Get out of the water if you feel cold, as even strong swimmers get tired in the cold.
  • Take notice of signs and flags and remember the following ...
  • Between red and yellow flags is the area patrolled by lifeguards.
  • A black and white checkered flag shows the designated area of water for boats and surfers.
  • A red flag means ‘do not enter the water’.
  • Know what to do if you see someone in difficulty in the water. Shout for help and tell a lifeguard if there is one available. Then go to the nearest phone, and contact the coastguard. Do not enter the water to rescue anyone.
  • If you get into trouble while surfing or bodyboarding, then try to hold onto your surfboard or bodyboard as a floating device.
  • Inflatable toys such as lilos and rubber rings are not suitable for use at the seaside and should be avoided, as the slightest offshore breeze can blow an inflatable out to sea.

Inland waterway safety

When planning to use an inland waterway, bear in mind that even people who are strong swimmers can get into difficulties — especially as the waters can often be very cold and hide all manner of objects. It’s also best to stick to locations that are well known and used by water sports clubs.

Some of the advice we have already looked at in Boat safety and Beach safety will also apply here — but a few other safety tips for when you’re using an inland waterway include ...

  • Don’t overdo it in the water. Get out before you feel too tired, and only swim where you are able to swim easily according to your own ability.
  • Wetsuits or drysuits are recommended to provide flotation and warmth.
  • Thoroughly check out new places if you’re going somewhere unfamiliar and ask a local person if it’s safe to enter the water there.
  • Follow the information on any signs and posters near the waterway.
  • Don’t go out alone, because if you do and you get into trouble then there won’t be anyone to help you.