The biggest danger to tourists swimming in the ocean is an underestimation of the power of the riptides.
A riptide is an ocean current that can grab hold of a swimmer and carry them out to sea.
“People underestimate the power of the ocean,” said Jesse Willyard, head lifeguard for the City of Cannon Beach.
A danger for tourists is their “general lack of knowledge about riptides.”
“We get a lot of vacationers down here. They have their vacation brain on and they are not thinking,” Willyard said.
“The rips form along the deeper parts of the beach, the trenches in the sand,” he said. Swimmers don’t see waves above the trenches and think it is a safer place to swim, “So they wade out. There’s really a dangerous current under there.
“It is a lot like a river. It can pull you out like a river.”
Marc Reckmann, fire chief for the Cannon Beach Fire Protection District, said he and other first-responders along the coast are dispatched to rescue swimmers.
“Lots of people swim in the ocean, and that’s okay,” said Reckmann, “if they know what they’re doing.”
“Never turn your back on the ocean,” Willyard added, referring to what are called sneaker waves. “Some days, the swells are 8 to 10 feet high,” he said.
“The waves can double (up) on each other, converge in the water and come up on shore further than people are used to.”
Willyard said that when it’s hot in Portland, Cannon Beach attracts a crowd of people to the beach. That includes plenty of youngsters.
“They think of (the ocean) like a swimming pool. And the parents aren’t always paying attention to the kids.”
Parents should stay close by “so they can grab them if they are in trouble.”
The water along the Oregon coast gets larger swells and is colder than off Southern California, Willyard said.
Cannon Beach has three, sometimes four lifeguards to watch about a four-mile stretch of beach, he said. “Luckily, the water is cold enough so the crowds are not as big as in Southern California.”
Both Willyard and Reckmann say never swim alone, so someone is available to call for help if there’s a problem.
Reckmann said the fire district does not have a surf rescue team as such, although the department did at one time. Now, it’s in the process of training volunteers two or three times a week, but it will take about a year to get them trained.
Another thing the tourists underestimate is the cold temperature of the coastal Oregon water, said Reckmann, which can shock and cramp muscles.
“The biggest mistake people make is just getting in too far,” he said. If a swimmer gets too close to the rock, it’s particularly dangerous because there are different waves and currents there.
Willyard said the local lifeguards tell people to “never to go out past their waist height. And to keep their feet on the sand, so the current doesn’t pick them up and move them toward the riptides.”
The Cannon Beach Lifeguards Facebook page contains safety warnings as well as updates on the tides and water temperatures, he added.
Many internet websites contain safety tips. The Cannon Beach Chamber of Commerce has such a section at https://www.cannonbeach.org/things-to-do/beaches-and-parks/beach-safety-tips/.