people sit on a sunny beach watching surfers in a bright blue sea

The summer holidays are nearly upon us and we’re looking forward to seeing hordes of happy families enjoying the sun and sea. The beach is a wonderful, diverse place, providing people of all ages with hours of fun. Whilst this ever-changing environment is a playground for surfing, swimming, rock pooling, games and sand castle building, it isn’t without its dangers. Most popular beaches in the UK operate a seasonal lifeguard service, meaning lifeguards will be on duty between early summer and mid-autumn, but when they aren’t it’s good to know how to handle any scenario.

RNLI lifeboat at sunset

So, what do you need to be aware of, and how can you look after your friends and family in case of an emergency? We spoke with Senior Lifeguard Leon Bennett, who manages the North Cornwall district of the RNLI. 

“Prevention is the best form of protection. Don’t enter the water alone, and if you’re not a confident swimmer you should wait until there are lifeguards on duty. Keep an eye on children, be conscious of tides and rip currents and always swim between the flags.”



Lifeguards will put up flags when they arrive at the beach. Red and yellow checked flags indicate the swimming area, and are strategically placed to enable safe bathing and boogie boarding. The flagged area will avoid rips, deep holes and any dangerous objects such as rocks and shipwrecks. The black and white flags signal the surfing area. This is where stand-up surfers, paddle-boarders and surf-ski users should be. Being within these areas means the lifeguards can keep an eye on you, control any possible issues and provide a safe space for water-users. If you see a plain red flag flying it means the water is unsafe, and you should not enter the ocean under any circumstances. This could be due to dangerously large waves, incredibly strong rip currents, surging tides or unpredictable conditions. 

lifeguard red and yellow flag against blue sky



Leon advised on what to do incase of an emergency, “If you see someone in trouble in the water and there are no lifeguards on duty, call the coastguard. You can do this easily by dialling 999 and asking for the coastguard. Many beaches will have an emergency phone installed near the RNLI hut, and you can press any button to be connected to the emergency services.”

Hypothermia and Heatstroke

Let’s talk about spotting signs and symptoms of hypothermia and heatstroke, two common occurrences of prolonged exposure to cold water or the sun. Once you can identify it, you can act accordingly. 

Hypothermic symptoms include shivering, cold skin, slow breathing, blue lips, tiredness, slurred speech and confusion, and babies may become floppy and feel cold. It happens when a person gets too cold, and their body temperature drops below 35 degrees Celsius. If you think someone may have hypothermia you need to alert the lifeguard and/or call 999 and ask for the ambulance. Whilst you’re waiting for help you need to get the affected person warm. If possible, move them inside and out of the cold. Remove any wet clothing and replace it with warm, loose fitting layers, a sleeping bags, coats and blankets, making sure their head is covered too. Insulate them from cold ground via blankets or towels and provide warm beverages such as sugary tea or hot chocolate. Monitor their breathing and ensure they remain conscious by constantly talking to them and asking them questions. 

The signs of heat exhaustion include a headache, dizziness, confusion, feeling sick, loss of appetite, excessive sweating, pale, clammy skin, cramps in the arms, legs and stomach, fast breathing or pulse, a temperature of 38 degrees Celsius or above and being very thirsty. Children may also become floppy and sleepy. To treat heatstroke, you need to cool the patient down. If there aren’t lifeguards on duty, you can do this yourself. Move them to a cool place, this could be into the shade of a beach tent, inside the lifeguard hut or into the sea. If on land, get them to lie down and raise their feet slightly. Give the patient plenty of water and cool their skin with water, or place cold packs around their armpits and neck. Stay with them until they are better. This should only take around 30 minutes. 

rnli lifeboat leaves north cornwall harbour


Recovery position 

There are a number of reasons you might have to put someone in the recovery position, so knowing how to do it is an important life skill that transcends further than the beach. If a person is unconscious but breathing and has no other life-threatening conditions, they should be put in the recovery position. This keeps their airway clear and open and ensures that they won’t choke on any vomit or fluid. 

Lifeguards are all trained in first aid and administer the recovery position often. It’s also easy to learn and you can do it yourself. Leon said, “The 4 simple steps of the recovery position are; 1. Kneeling at their side, place the nearest arm at a right angle, 2. Put the back of the other hand next to the cheek closest to you and hold it there, 3. Bend the far knee, grasp the far leg and roll them onto their side, 4. Open airway by titling their chin upwards and opening their mouth.”


Float to live

In the event that you find yourself in trouble, the RNLI recommend “float to live”. Floating minimises your risk of gasping uncontrollably and breathing in water, which can quickly lead to downing or, later, secondary drowning. If you lose your board, are struggling against a rip or find yourself in a desperate situation, lean back, extending your arms and legs and tilting back your head to keep your mouth and nose out of the water and your airway clear. Gentle movements will keep you afloat and minimise using too much of your energy. Leon’s advised us, “The RNLI recommends floating for around 60-90 seconds until you’ve calmed down and controlled your breathing. Then consider what to do, whether that is swimming to safety or signalling using your arms if there is someone nearby.”

rnli lifeboat at sunset


We hope this brief overview of beach safety has proved insightful and has left you feeling capable and clued up in case of a seaside emergency. The RNLI lifeguards are incredibly knowledgable, and are always open to answering questions and providing advice. Now, it’s time to hit the beach!