Ocean Toys: A Raft of Trouble?
Before your kids float or boogie in the big drink, heed this advice
When a boogie boarding accident landed Arnold Schwarzenegger’s 13-year-old son Christopher in the hospital in 2011 with several broken bones and a collapsed lung, many people were surprised at the extent of his injuries. But experts warn that boogie boards can be dangerous indeed.
So can rafts, noodles, inner tubes and the like. Although surfboards are by far the most dangerous toys, "any ocean toy is dangerous without supervision,” says Andrew Schmidt, DO, MPH, an assistant professor at the University of Florida and the director of Lifeguards Without Borders.
Whatever your kids’ ocean toy of choice, heed this advice from experts.
Boogie boards: Don’t surf the wrong waves
These foam boards allow swimmers to ride the waves near the shore. They’re great fun when you catch the wave just right, but they can be dangerous in the wrong conditions.
If the waves are bigger than 3 or 4 feet and the tide is low, it’s best to avoid boogie boarding unless you are a very skilled boarder, says veteran lifeguard Ed Fisher of Ocean City, Maryland in a Beach Patrol advisory. If there is a shore break — that is, waves crashing with full force right near the shore — put the boogie board away.
When boogie boarding, the key is to get in front of the wave, says the Beach Patrol advisory: Boogie boarding on top of a wave that’s already breaking may mean you get thrown headfirst to the ocean floor or shore. A March 2015 study published in the Journal of Emergencies, Trauma and Shock reports serious spinal injuries from such spills; the Medical Journal of Australia has also reported severe abdominal injuries in children when the board got jammed into their liver or spleen.
Stay on the rear half of the board, and if you need to bail out, go off the back of the board, advises the Beach Patrol. In addition, always keep the board leashed to your wrist to protect other people.
Finally, make sure the board you buy is not recalled. In 2009, the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) recalled Kick Body Boards because the board logo’s green coating was excessively high in lead.
Rafts and inner tubes: Not for non-swimmers
Rafts and inner tubes aren’t meant as life-saving devices for non-swimmers or weak swimmers, so don’t think of them that way. As Peter Davis, vice president of the U.S. Lifesaving Association puts it, “Don’t use inflatable toys in place of swimming skills. If you can’t swim somewhere, don’t float there.”
But even kids (and adults) who know how to swim run the risk of being swept out to sea on a raft or inner tube. It’s best to use these toys at beaches with lifeguards and ask what the conditions are like before entering the water. If there are large waves or a rip current, you should probably leave these toys on the beach. If conditions are OK, make sure someone is keeping an eye on the swimmers from the beach. If they start to drift out to sea, call a lifeguard.
Related: How to Survive a Rip Current
The CPSC has also recalled some inner tubes, including Tractor Supply tubes, after consumers reported severe skin irritation and chemical burns. Check to see whether your kids’ inner tube is on a recall list before they jump in, and have them wear a swim shirt to protect their skin.
Skimboards: Trickier than they seem
Skimboards may be popular with young beach lovers, but some doctors are worried about them. Skimboards are thin wooden boards that you can jump on in shallow water and ride along the beach or into the water. A study by physicians in the U.K. found that “falls from the board caused injuries to both upper and lower limbs, including fractures requiring hospital treatment and surgery.”
The study’s lead author, Mark Williams, MD, warns, “Skimboarding is great fun, but a bit of care is needed, particularly when starting out. Our study found that injuries do occur as the learning curve is steep, and the rider can be thrown off the board easily.”
Skimonline, a web resource for skimboarders, offers a few words of safety advice, including warming up first and practicing falling and landing on your feet.
A word on “floaties”
Floaties, inflatable boats and donuts with seats may be fun for your toddler, but these are toys, not life preservers. You can’t rely on them to keep your child safe in the ocean.
“The floaties that strap across the chest are becoming very popular, but we see parents ignore their kids when they have them on,” says Schmidt.
Some other baby floatation devices have a poor track record, too. In 2009, Aqua-Leisure Industries recalled their Inflatable Baby Floats — a tiny baby boat — after 31 reports of the boat seats tearing, resulting in a baby or toddler plunging into the water. Fortunately, no children were injured. The CPSC has recalled swim vests and water wings for safety reasons as well.
The bottom line: Don’t rely on any flotation device other than a U.S. Coast Guard- approved life vest to keep your child safe in the ocean.
Respect the power of the ocean
Whatever toys you decide to bring to the beach, remember that the ocean is powerful. Swim where there is a lifeguard, never allow children to swim unsupervised and never allow non-swimmers in the ocean without a life vest. In fact, experts recommend keeping your young children in a life jacket whether they can swim or not.