Open Water Swimming Safety

As the sun comes out and it gets hotter more and more people will be tempted to go for a dip or a swim in open water. I love that more people are getting into open water, and I even actively encourage people to try it. However, I wish more people would think about the risks involved in the sport and the consequences that their actions may have BEFORE they enter the water or decide to jump into the river from a bridge. In the news recently there have been several reports of people sadly dying and getting into difficulty in open water and felt I should write some of the main safety points I follow and encourage to my students.

Open water swimming as a sport is amazing, personally, it has given me so much joy and increased my confidence more than I ever thought possible. As a result of me getting into open water swimming I now have a job that I love and can do around my health issues; even if it is only for a couple of hours a week. I have met so many amazing people and I still can’t quite believe the difference that my campaigning for the sport to be more accessible and inclusive has made to my life. However, it concerns me that many people, even organised groups don’t always take the safety advice that they give out.

One of the biggest issues that I feel people overlook and think should be bought to peoples attention is the fact that no matter when or where you swim in open water it will always be different, that is the beauty that is nature. Even if you have been to the same spot before it is never guaranteed it will be the same as the previous time. Someone may have dumped rubbish there, if the weather is different the current may be different too and if it has been a few weeks then the weeds may have grown; you just don’t know until you’re in. 

Below are 10 tips that I use and recommend for staying safe in Open Water:

  1. Ensure you have planned and safe entry and exit point.

This may seem obvious, but I have recently heard of people that have jumped into the river on a hot sunny day but then realised they had to swim 200m upstream to get out and they were not strong enough to swim against the current. What happens if you jump in and can’t swim that 200m, how do you get out? What if you cant get out? Always make sure there is an exit point for you and if you are doing long swims it can’t hurt to know that there are a few exit points enroute for if you get into trouble.

2. Never Swim Alone

I have heard so many people say this but then go and swim alone anyway. With my coaches hat on I tell my students to never enter the water alone unless you have someone on a paddle board or at the very least a spotter on shore who can have sight of you at all times and who is able to get help if you need it. 

 

3. Don’t jump into the water, you never know what is lurking beneath the surface!

I see this all too often from both experienced swimmers, newbies and drunks. If you haven’t been in the water before (on that day and close to that time) then don’t jump in, its as simple as that. So many people die by jumping in from bridges and banks and handmade swings that go over the river. Some die from impact with an object, be it a shopping trolley, rock, bike or even the riverbed as they thought the river was much deeper than it really is. Others die from Cold Shock and some from drowning. If you do want to jump in the water, get acclimatised first and swim where it is you will be jumping/landing so that you know how deep it is, if there is anything there you could hit and if you should or shouldn’t jump. It is such a simple thing to do and I feel it could save so many lives.

 

4. Be aware of Cold Shock and how to deal with it

I mentioned cold shock in terms of jumping into water but jumping in is not the only time it can affect you. Simply getting into the water too quickly can cause cold shock. 

The term ‘cold water shock’ refers to a range of natural reactions that our bodies take to protect us when we enter cold water (although these reactions can sometimes work against us). And with cold water being anything from approximately the temperature of a swimming pool and below, we are not just talking about icy cold water here

RLSS (Royal Lifesaving Society), https://www.rlss.org.uk/cold-water-shock-the-facts

There are 3 stages to cold shock, starting with a gasp for a breath, this is often what people mean when they say the cold water “took their breath away”. As your breathing gets out of control your blood pressure will increase because your body is trying to keep your blood warm by moving it to your vital organs, this is why your extremities go pale first. Finally, as your muscles cool, your strength, endurance and muscle control reduces, to the point where you are unable to function so cannot rescue yourself. At this stage, it is too late for you to try and get out of the water all you can do is hope to be rescued by someone.

To reduce the effects of cold shock you must acclimatise to the water, take your time getting in and if you gasp for a breath focus on slowing your breathing down before moving or swimming any further. If you do feel you are suffering from cold shock, then exit the water carefully and get dressed and warm as quickly as possible to reduce the risk of Hypothermia.

 

5. Ensure someone you aren’t swimming with knows the area you are swimming and when you are due back.

Its important to never swim on your own and always have some form of safety cover but it is also important to let someone that is not swimming or paddling with you what time you should be back by. This is so that if something happens to both you and your safety cover then the alarm can be raised that there may have been an issue during the swim.

6. Be visible, always make sure you are visible to other river and lake users.

A lot of people, especially teenagers hate wearing a swimming hat, especially if they are just going for a dip rather than a swim, however, a swimming hat is not only used to make you visible but it also adds a layer to your head to keep it warm. A good piece of kit to own if you want to swim in Open water is a tow float, for me and my students, this is essential. A bright coloured tow float which bobs along behind you, its little extra effort to swim with but it helps boats to see you and therefore avoid you. A key thing for being in open water is to stay visible.

7. Make yourself aware of the Float to Live campaign

The Royal National Lifeboat Institution (RNLI) have started a water safety campaign in partnership with HM Coastguards called ‘Float to Live’; click the image to find out more.

The 5 steps of the float to live campaign are:

  • If you fall into water, fight your instinct to thrash around.
  • Lean back, extend your arms and legs.
  • If you need to, gently move them around to help you float.
  • Float until you can control your breathing.
  • Only then, call for help or swim to safety.

8. Check currents, tides and the weather forecast.

This is a no brainer, make yourself aware of the water you are getting into, think about how strong the current is and if you can’t tell throw a stick in the water to see how fast it moves. Check tides if you are swimming at a beach location and lookout for the weather forecast, we are all going to be wet anyway so rain is no issue, it is when it gets too windy or there are thunder and lightning that you shouldn’t be in the water and should get out as soon as possible.

9. Don’t put yourself at risk to get someone else out of trouble.

This is a very difficult situation to be in, you see someone struggling and you want nothing more than to help but unless you are 100% sure you can help you must not enter the water. There is a chance that you could then get into difficulty as well. If at all possible wait for rescuers to arrive to help the casualty.

10. Check the water temperature.
This is simple enough, check the temperature before you get in, take a thermometer and from the result judge if it is safe for YOU to swim, everyone is different and everyone can deal with different temperatures.

 

I know it’s a lot but don’t panic, more often than not everything is fine, and everyone has a great time but there are occasions when it can go wrong and unfortunately, it is often the case that when it goes wrong it can tragically end with someone losing their life and proof is in the numbers – over 400 lives are lost each year in the UK through drowning. Just a few of the more recent incidents that have resulted in the loss of a life –

In April in North Wales an 18 year old jumped from a pipe into a reservoir and died, more recently a man in his 50s died at Silverdale Country Park in Staffordshire and another 20 year old died in Bawsey Pits in Wisbech whilst swimming in the small lake there. So how can you ensure you are safe when in open water?

Remember to stop and think about what you are about to do before you get into the water. Are you fit to go swimming? Are you sure you can manage in the water conditions? Do you know that where you are swimming is safe? If the answer is no to any of those questions, then simply don’t get in the water, it is not worth the risk.

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