I remember my brother’s inflatable water toy – a swim ring in the shape of a smiling rubber duckie. We took it on our family’s first trip to the beach, when he was two and I was four. Hailing from landlocked Atlanta, neither of us could swim, but playing in the ocean in Brunswick, Georgia, was the most thrilling experience we had ever had. I remember my baby brother proudly riding the waves in his duckie like a tiny Neptune. I waved at him from the beach and he waved back, delirious with joy.
Then my brother disappeared. Only the duckie was visible, smiling and floating serenely on the waves.
I ran toward the floatie in a panic, screaming for my parents – my doting, ever-protective parents — but the wind whipped my words away and I couldn’t see anyone through the sand dunes. Suddenly my brother broke through the surface, thrashing and clawing the sky in a fight for his life. I managed to grab him by an arm before I fell off the sandbar into water over my head. I flailed, trying desperately to latch onto the duckie, but it teased me by floating just out of reach.
Rafts, inner tubes and other inflatable ocean toys are great for summer fun, but as my parents found out, they can be dangerous. Although flotation devices are not life jackets, parents are lulled into a false sense of security while their children play with them in the water. Peter Davis, president of the U.S. Lifesaving Association, puts it succinctly: “Don’t use inflatable toys in place of swimming skills. If you can’t swim there, don’t float there.”
Andrew Schmidt, DO, MPH, an assistant professor at the University of Florida and the director of Lifeguards Without Borders, warns that ocean toy play requires constant supervision. “Too often parents put their kids on a raft and then walk away thinking the kids are safe,” he says. “Rafts pose an additional risk of trapping kids under them and leading to a drowning…There is also a much higher risk of a person getting pulled out by a rip current or pushed out by the wind.”
The government of Ireland, in fact, recently pleaded with parents not to use inflatable beach toys at all after rescuers responded to nearly 50 calls in one week involving children drifting out to sea on floaties. Inflatable toys are all right for Mediterranean waters, officials said, but strong winds and tidal streams made them too risky for Irish beaches. “Often parents or siblings go out to rescue them and they also get into trouble,” Irish Water Safety chief executive John Leech told a local paper. “This is what leads to double or triple tragedies in the same family.”
To stay safe, avoid toys designed to keep children afloat “if the child is unable to survive in the water without them,” says Schmidt, an emergency medicine physician. “Also, if it’s a day where the wind is coming off the beach and blowing out to sea, it’s best to avoid playing in the water with rafts or balls, as people often chase after them and find themselves in rough or deep water.”
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