Coastal fatality figures released today (24 July) reveal 29 people accidentally lost their lives around the north of England coast last year – the highest number in four years. The number of near-misses was even higher, with 52 lives being saved by the RNLI’s lifeboat crews and lifeguards in the north.

The charity is today launching a major drowning awareness campaign, Respect the Water, warning people to stay safe this summer.

Over the past four years, a total of 90 people have died around coasts of the north of England – an average of 23 each year. The figures show a clear gender divide, with adult men accounting for two-thirds (66%) of northern coastal deaths over this time.

Michael Avril, the RNLI’s Community Incident Reduction Manager for the north of England, says:

‘With more people losing their lives at the coast each year than are killed in cycling accidents, we’re trying to make people, particularly men, realise that they are at risk from drowning if they don’t follow some basic but important safety advice. Of course we want people to go to the coast and enjoy it – we’re lucky to have an exceptional coastline around the UK – but we want people to understand there are risks, and that they should not underestimate the power of the sea.’

Many would assume adrenaline sports and rough weather are the biggest causes of incidents but, in fact, it’s casual, everyday use of the coast and sea which often results in fatalities. Swimming and general leisure use of the water accounted for 20 (22%) of the coastal deaths in the north since 2010.

And it’s not only water-based activities which put people in danger. Over the four-year period, slips and falls while walking and running accounted for 27 (30%) of the coastal deaths in the north. Alcohol consumption is also a contributing factor in around one-fifth (21%) of the coastal fatalities in the north.

For those entering the water, intentionally or otherwise, cold water shock is a significant danger. Despite warm summer air temperatures, the UK sea temperature is cold enough year-round to trigger cold water shock – the average UK sea temperature is just 12oc , but cold water shock can set in at any temperature below 15oc. It causes uncontrollable gasping, which draws water into the lungs and can lead to drowning. The charity is warning people to be aware of the effects of cold water shock and to acclimatise gradually when getting in to the water.

Other common factors are rip currents and fatigue. Rip currents consistently account for around two-thirds of the environmental-related incidents RNLI lifeguards respond to each season. For those not at a lifeguarded beach, being caught in a rip can prove fatal if they don’t take the right steps to free themselves and make it safely to shore. Panicking and trying to swim against strong currents is exhausting and can overwhelm even the strongest swimmers. The RNLI’s advice is to not swim against the rip current but, instead, to call for help and swim parallel to shore until free from the rip current and then make for the safety of the beach.

Michael Avril, adds: ‘Our key advice is to choose a lifeguarded beach and swim between the red and yellow flags, where you’ll have professional lifeguards looking out for you. If you want a few drinks in the sun on the beach, remember that alcohol and water don’t mix, so drink after swimming, not before.

‘Remember that, despite warm air temperatures, the UK sea temperature is cold enough year-round to trigger cold water shock, so acclimatise gradually in shallow water. Don’t over-estimate your ability – the sea is a very different environment to a pool and even the strongest swimmers can tire quickly. If you get caught in a rip current, don’t panic or try to swim against it; swim parallel to the shore until you’re free. To avoid falls, stay away from cliff edges, stick to pathways and read safety signs.’

The charity, which saves lives at sea, is today launching its Respect the Water campaign, highlighting the risk of drowning around the coasts of the UK.

Nationally, an average of 160 people die at the coast each year – that’s more than the number killed in cycling accidents. The RNLI is aiming to halve this number by 2024. Nine locations have been chosen for campaign activity: Blackpool, Portsmouth, Brighton, Margate, Clacton, Kingston-on-Thames, Cardiff Bay, Newquay and Queensferry.

In these areas, targeted safety advice will be on display to the public, including outdoor posters and displays, radio and online advertising, as well as pint glasses and bar runners printed with safety advice in selected waterside pubs. The charity will also have a cubic metre of water – weighing one tonne – on display, to help people realise how heavy a relatively small volume of water is.

Throughout the summer, the RNLI’s ‘Respect the Water punchbag’, containing a quarter of a tonne of water, will be touring around key UK seaside locations. Members of the public will be invited to take on the challenge, to see how long they can last when battling with that weight of water, reinforcing the point that water never tires but people do.

England rugby star James Haskell is supporting the campaign. He says:

‘As a rugby player, I train to be as strong as I can be. But I know from experience, that even I’m no match for the strength of the sea. This campaign isn’t about telling people not to go into the water – in fact, quite the opposite. The sea is a great place to have fun and relax in the summer. This is about being smart and safe when you are there. The water is the opponent that never tires, so make sure you’re never put to the test.’