Belfast Telegraph

Ballycastle tragedy swimmers may have been victims of rip current, expert says

Deirdre McShane, who lost her life
Deirdre McShane, who lost her life

By John Breslin

The two women in the waters off Ballycastle when tragedy struck yesterday may have been the victims of a sudden and violent rip current, an expert has said.

Professor Mike Tipton of the University of Portsmouth said experienced winter swimmers are highly unlikely to place themselves in a situation where they are subjected to dangerous cold shock.

Sixty percent of cold water deaths happen because of a sudden shock to the system after falling, jumping or even walking into frigid waters, he said.

Shock, panic, a rapid drop in body temperature and loss of breathing control can happen within one or two minutes. This, not hypothermia, leads to death.

But this is not what Mr Tipton, Professor of Human and Applied Physiology in the Department of Sport and Exercise Science, believes happened in Ballycastle as the two women were reportedly capable, experienced cold water swimmers.

They, along with others in the group that had gathered for the morning swim, would know to study the weather and water and take several simple, but key, steps prior to venturing into the sea.

These include staying warm right up to the point where the swimmer is about to walk slowly into the water. Hands and wrists are then placed in the water, followed by the splashing of the neck and face before the slow dipping under of the shoulders and gradual start to swimming.

If, as reported, the sea was calm when they went into the water, then the professor suspects the two women were the victims of a sudden and violent rip current.

"They knew exactly how to go in and how long to stay in," Mr Tipton said. "For something this disastrous to happen, something must have been different; either weather conditions became more severe or there were rip currents."

Any sudden change in conditions may have led to the two finding themselves in a situation where they were in the water for much longer than was normal, the cold water expert believes.

An individual still has a 50% chance of survival after one hour in five degree centigrade temperatures.

But the fact the surviving swimmer was suffering from hypothermia means she was in the water for some time prior to rescue, probably much longer than normal.

At first the peripheral parts of the body, particularly along the arms, will start to cool, which can significantly impair swimming ability.

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