Years back I climbed up the pyramids in Tical, Guatemala. It was really steep, and the steps were not designed for big American feet. I reached the top and looked out from a view above the rainforest canopy in awe. Then I looked down and realized there were no handrails. I was shocked. In the US this just wouldn’t happen. There would be railings and arrangements for disabled people and cable cars, so no one collapsed on the way up.
We’re Americans. We live in a country with quite a few resources. A country that has city, state, and federal governments that do all kinds of things that allow us the illusion of complete safety. We rarely see holes in the sidewalks or stairs without railings. Signs are everywhere reminding us how to stay safe. “Caution Drop Off”. “Plastic bags can suffocate you”. “Apple filling is hot”.
All of these precautions are aimed at one thing. Minimizing risk. Not eliminating risk but minimizing risk. The concept is “layers of protection”. It starts with each of us watching out for our own safety, then the safety of loved ones or companions. Then there are the institutional measures of railings, signs, metal detectors, airbags, childproof caps, security checks, health codes, etc. Institutions have sign in areas to filter visitors, schools lock all doors but the entrance, lifeguard towers have “lifeguard only” signs, etc.
It works almost too well. We forget that all of these layers of protection, while reducing risk, do not guarantee that we’ll be totally safe. We forget that there is no guarantee because we’re constantly inundated. We look for blame when accidents happen (“Was he wearing his seatbelt?”). And then we go to the beach.
Of all places the ocean is still the Wild Wild West. We do a great job of mitigating the risk considering that the ocean is something by its very nature that can’t be controlled. We train our lifeguards beyond all standards and expectations. We maintain over 600 safety signs up and down the beach. We have layers upon layers of supervisors, vehicles, and watchers for the watchers. And at beaches guarded by United States Lifesaving Association lifeguards (like ours) your chances of drowning in a guarded area are 1 in 18 million. But ultimately, we are only an additional layer of protection. We can’t guarantee safety, only mitigate risk.
Part of the beauty of visiting the beach is that once you step beyond the shoreline you are outside of all the human-made environment. That feeling of freedom you have when you dive into the surf is partly because of that. It’s important to remember, however, that you are mostly outside of all those safety nets. 30 yards from shore might as well be a 3-day trek into the wilderness.
So, do what you can when you’re out in all that freedom. Swim near a lifeguard, stay away from structures, and assign a water watcher for starters. Then get out there!