As I write this article the United Kingdom is in general Coronavirus lock down and though the rules might change for better or worse in the near future you can currently exercise outside once a day, locally with one other person not of your household. This includes recreational swimming but as all swimming pools are closed the only alternative is to swim outdoors in either a river, lake or if lucky enough the sea.
So if you are considering this as your form of exercise, or are interested in open water swimming generally, you should be aware of the open water swimming safety equipment that you might need and the reasons for this, whilst also understanding the general safety advice that goes along with swimming outdoors.
Therefore, in this article I am going to highlight some safety advice that you should keep in mind when open water swimming making it the enjoyable experience it should be along with all the health benefits it can bring. I will also highlight some safety equipment that you should consider as an absolute minimum if venturing out for the first few times or even as an experienced swimmer, as it is never too late to refresh your memory with safety tips that should be a matter of course.
If at all possible you should not swim alone and try to find a swimmer/s to accompany you who are preferably more experienced if you are starting out, or even better know the area in which you will be swimming.
As open water swimming has become more popular in the last few years there are now lots more open water swimming groups and facilities that are accessible via Facebook, and these are always looking for new members. Take a look, you will be pleasantly surprised at what you can find local to yourself.
Obviously current lock down restrictions and seasonal weather will be a limiting factor on group swimming, so you must seriously consider whether it would be wise to wait until circumstances are more amenable to open water swim. If swimming alone is the only option or one that you prefer then the following should help to keep you safe.
Know your Terrain
Before you enter any open water you must first understand the local terrain. A few minutes spent prior to swimming making sure you know and can identify your entry and exit points (remembering that it is harder to exit the water if you or the bank are wet) and also these points should preferably be in shallow water so you can stand and not be trying to pull yourself out of deep water. Also, are there any visible currents or warning flags in place, or any obstructions that you need to be aware of (please note: not all currents and obstructions are visible).
Another important consideration is that you have permission to swim where you intend?, i.e. is it private land or not easily accessible for swimming. For example an old gravel pit somewhere on a local moor would not be advisable unless you are an experienced swimmer. If in a river setting permissions might be more difficult as you could be swimming through private property, but it is best to be aware and also not to trespass to enter and exit the water.
Awareness of other water users is paramount, be they canoeists, paddle boarders, pleasure boats, scuba divers or any such others you might be sharing your space with. It is also good practice not to upset any fisherman (you could check if there are any swimming matches happening on the water you intend to swim). Such encounters are always good to avoid if you do not want to be shouted at and covered in ground bait or worse.
Acclimatize to the Water Temperature
It is important that you can acclimatize to the water temperature, especially to avoid “cold shock” in low temperatures. This reinforces the point regarding entering the water via the shallows, where you can then easily stand and dip down to immerse yourself up to your shoulders, also to put your face into the water.
Take your time to acclimatize, if it is not comfortable, too cold or you cannot catch your breath do not continue to swim but come back later or another time to re-acclimatize. This might take time or several visits, but it is well worth doing rather than rushing into your swim and putting yourself at risk.
Cold shock is the body’s reaction to sudden cold and can begin with a gasp reflex that can lead to uncontrolled hyperventilation. This is again a good reason not to jump straight into water unless it is above 15°C/59°F or you are already acclimatized.
Also, whilst swimming in cold water keep constantly monitoring yourself to ensure you are not starting to experience cold incapacitation, where your muscles start to lose power, your limbs become slow and swimming becomes increasingly difficult and if this might be the case exit the water at the earliest opportunity.
Whilst all the above might sound and is scary stuff, the key is to take the time to acclimatize yourself and always monitor yourself whilst swimming and once you have this area covered it should make your open water experience much more enjoyable. Also, cold or wild swimming without wet suits is coming much more popular and it is claimed derives many health benefits.
It is important to remain visible in open water at all times. This can be in case you require assistance or so that other water users are aware of you.
When swimming your profile will be low in the water so you might be difficult to see, again a swim float in a bright colour is invaluable here.
Let someone know where you will be, or even better if you can swim in an area that is monitored such as a privately owned stretch of water or lake, or where coastguards are present Many such facilities are now being made available to open water swimmers for a small fee and are usually watched over by a lifeguard or two. Such an example of this is Box End Water Sports Park in Bedfordshire, UK. Also, quite a few lakes or lidos now available in the London area and a quick trawl through Google will bring these up.
Currents and Rip Tides
As mentioned earlier you should take some time to understand the terrain in which you will be swimming. In rivers this could involve currents that might not be visible, or in the sea as well as currents there can be rip tides that are another hidden danger which can suddenly appear and rapidly step up in velocity.
To me this emphasizes the fact that when in Open water you must have some sort of buoyancy with you whilst swimming, be it a proper swimming wet suit or a swim buoy attached around the waist, or both. When I swim knowing I have these aids if I should ever get into trouble is a definite plus and confidence booster.
In rivers, it is important to understand that currents are generally stronger in the middle or main course of water so if swimming against the current I always find it easier to swim along the sides nearer the bank, and if with the current more down the middle. It is sometimes surprising how much difference a current makes until you are zipping along with it behind you. Therefore, if you find yourself in difficulties in a current it is advisable to swim to the side at the earliest opportunity and not to keep fighting it.
With rip tides the same scenario applies, you should not keep fighting it but at the earliest opportunity swim to the side and out of the rip. As a rip tide can quickly take you out of your depth away from the shore I always have a swim buoy as added security regardless of the conditions. The main things to remember if you find yourself in a difficult rip tide is:
Don’t panic. Try to keep as calm as possible, Rip currents will not pull you under as they are just moving channels of water that whilst they can extend a far way from the shore they will dissipate, usually within 50-100 feet of the shoreline.
Don’t swim against the rip. By swimming against the rip you will quickly become exhausted leading to further difficulties. Remember a rip is an elongated channel of water typically only 20 – 100 feet wide, so as quickly as possible swim to the side and out of the current. This is done by swimming parallel to the shore in either direction and then once you are out of the rip swim at an angle away from it back to the shore.
Go with it: If you don’t have the swimming skills or energy to swim out of the rip, the best technique is to float on your back and to go with the current. Once the rip dissipates, swim to the side perpendicular to the beach or signal for assistance. If you take this option you can see why a swim float would be an invaluable piece of equipment to hang onto.
Keeping Yourself Safe
By following some or all of the tips above for open water swimming this will help to keep you safe and make open water swimming the enjoyable pastime that it is.
I hope that the areas I have covered above, although serious in tone, will help you in having the confidence to give open water swimming a go, or if more experienced as a timely reminder of some of the things we should take into account as a matter of course.