Please be careful

I know that many people who read this blog do so because they travel to El Salvador on church mission trips -- perhaps to build houses with Habitat for Humanity, to run a medical clinic, or to drill a well. I am often asked about how to stay safe in El Salvador. One thing I uniformly answer is that more people die on mission trips to El Salvador drowning in the ocean than for any other cause.

I was reminded of this again when I read today of the tragic death of a 54-year old man from Bloomington, Illinois who drowned while swimming off the coast of El Salvador. He had traveled to El Salvador with his church to work on building houses for the poor.

Unfortunately, he is one of several who have come to El Salvador to help, but tragically die during a day of relaxation on a Pacific ocean beach. Others include:
  • A Baptist worker from Missouri in April 2007
  • A mother from Huntington, West Virginia in July 2005
  • A Seventh Day Adventist pastor from New Jersey in February 2002.
  • A Canadian working with SalvAide in 1988.
  • A Peace Corps Volunteer, January 1969.
I am aware of others as well.

The US State Department advice to travelers to El Salvador includes this statement:
Strong undertows and currents can make swimming at El Salvador's Pacific Coastal beaches extremely dangerous for even strong and experienced swimmers. As an example of this hazard, during a single seven-day holiday period, nine Salvadoran citizens drowned while swimming at Pacific beaches. In one month alone, three U.S. citizens drowned while swimming at Pacific beaches in La Libertad and La Paz Departments.
El Salvador ranks number 17 worldwide in per capita drowning rate with a reported 42 drownings per million people.

So PLEASE BE CAREFUL. Certainly enjoy El Salvador's beautiful beaches, but follow prudent water safety practices. Don't exceed your own swimming ability. Make sure you talk with someone who knows the beach where you will be swimming and can explain where rip tides and other hazards may exist. Learn about what to do if you get caught in a rip tide:
The real danger with rip currents is not that you're getting pulled away from shore, but how you react.

Most swimmers will panic and try to swim against the current. They will tire quickly and soon go under.

The key to surviving a rip current is to swim out of it, not against it. This is done by swimming parallel to shore.

Since rip currents are fairly narrow you will be out of the “rip” in no time. You can either swim back to shore or let the waves help you back in.
The web page which provided that advice also has more detailed safety information at this link.


Hodad said…
as an experienced ocean swimmer for 40 years I can attest, as I almost drowned twice my self bodysurfing in front of my house in Playa San Diego
scared the mess out of me when your head is above the water and here comes 4-5 3 story high THICK
gnarly waves

one semana santa, maybe1996,
9 people drowned there in one weekend

and Zunzal at 30 ft can be scary, while sitting way outside and seeing that 9th 9th wave coming, paddling for the horizon and still having to throw my board and dive under

do not go in large pacific waves unless you are a good swimmer, and a very good breath holder and like to get 'pounded'

and NEVER on drugs or alcohol
many have a few and never come back

go out with the rip, relax, dive under the waves and wait for a lull
to swim in, or catch a smaller wave
Anonymous said…
it's good you blog about this cause this is something that has been happening since forever in el salvador and most people just ignore it. idk but it seems that it just adds to the uncertainties of el salvador; i think it ranks 3rd or 4th after gang violence and traffic accidents.
Unknown said…
"when your head is above the water and here comes 4-5 3 story high THICK gnarly waves"

Keep it real mate, the asian tsunami of boxing day was one story tall, and wiped everything in its path. Had you been caught by a 3 story high wave, you'd be in davy jones locker.

And not within reach of its key.

Ahhhhrghhh matie....

Anonymous said…
We host mission teams here in El Salvador and have done so for 5 years. We quit going to the beach on our free day because you can't tell us gringos how dangerous the waters are there.

We had a youth team with us and warned them of the undercurrents, told them not to go out in water over waist deep, but left to cook lunch, and two of them got swept out. One of our interpreters was also on the El Salvador national water polo team and he saved them both. We've never been back.

So part of the problem is that no matter how you warn people, they think they know better. The best way to combat that is just not to go. That's sad because some of the beaches here are very pretty, and spending the day at a rancho is a great way to relax. But it's not worth someone drowning.
Hodad said…
you get real Pal,
I have been surfing 45 years all over the world
and in El Salvador-Guetamala we have the most consistent waves on this particular planet
due to Guatemala trench

to enligten you
Tsunami's move at close to 600 mph over open ocean top wave component may be only 1 ft, bottom component contains the energy,
when they reach shore they slow to maybe 200 mph
but wave energy component translates to mass and more height
ie: in Poneloya Nicaragua 1992, where i was 2 countries up and 4 waves at double height of the day came to shore in Sipicate

I have caught Zunzal at 30 ft plus

and as i said Playa San Diego where i live beach front for 5 years
kills people
and almost killed me
but most of the deaths can be attributed to drug or alcohol consumption, before the swimmer enters the water,
jaykay said…
I have a question. Is it safe to go out on moderate seas (say 3 to 6 feet) with a surfboard on a beach with a bad undercurrent? It was my understanding that as long as you were on your board, the riptide wouldn't pull you out very fast and waves coming in would always push you in faster.
I've recently moved here and have taken my board to Punta Roca, Cobanos, and Costa del Sol and it seems pretty safe, as long as the leash doesn't break.
Hodad said…
sure it is safe I would say
but stay in shape by swimming
seems most of boyoz in Latin America smoke cigarettes, to be strong in the surf waves ones lings must be strong,
always do equipment check, leash and knots and know how to see and judge currents in the pacific another factor is major difference in tide levels, it can change rapidly and worse with new and full moons
if your leash breaks, well then it is time to swim, at least there are less packs of agro sharks than here in redneck riviera
only that bad time in 95 in El Sal
big bull

after large sets comes a lull, shortly after this,
just relax, and do not panic, go with the energy...... stroke to the beach
retie your leash and go 4 it
Unknown said…
EL Salvador is great place to spend weekends and if you are coming to have an wonderful experience of waves, great view, and an awesome crowd and it is well known for lots of activates at beach spot to enjoy your trip with friends and family.