Portuguese beaches are big and beautiful but the waters are not as safe as those of the Mediterranean due to the power of the Atlantic, particularly on Portugal’s surf-popular west coast.
People, including adults and good swimmers regularly drown off Portugal’s Atlantic coast where the waves are a good size and the rip currents are consequently common.
Whirlpools are an extreme example of dangerous currents but fundamentally need to be handled in the same way as any undertow – also known as a rip; they rarely drag people down, only around and around.
Monster waves are clearly visible but the powerful undertow – also known as a rip – that cycles waters back to the ocean can easily take a swimmer out with it and is invisible to the inexperienced eye. Resistance is futile.
Parents should exercise caution on unfamiliar beaches. Beaches that are monitored by life guards generally flag safe areas to swim – which may be narrow and crowded – as opposed to surf zones which can seem attractively uncrowded but conceal dangerous rips. Most surfers are strong swimmers, know how to handle rips, and of course have a board to hang on to.
In Portugal the swimming season is considered closed after September so lifeguards will not be present and safety flags will not fly, even if conditions are dangerous. If you wish to swim, perhaps in a wetsuit, then use great caution. Check safety with locals, especially surfers and monitor kids carefully.
Desperate and exhausting thrashing is the killer as rips don’t usually drag swimmers under, even the whirlpool version, just away from the beach. If you fight the current you will tire rapidly and may lose the ability to keep your head up.
Rips do not flow indefinitely, they lose power within 5-40 metres though this may seem a long way when you’re trapped there, but just go with the flow. When the drag loosens, swim a few metres parallel to the beach i. e. away from the rip and then a safe return is possible.
Alternatively, calmly wave a hand and call for help, perhaps from a surfer.