Staying safe whilst open water swimming and an understanding of the basic swimming safety facts should always be your number one priority and a couple of items on social media this week have drawn my attention to it once again. The first was footage of a dramatic rescue of a swimmer from the Bristol Channel during December 2020, the second being a news item extolling the virtues of open water swimming for beginners but obviously not written by a swimmer of any experience, basically informing its readers that rivers and lakes are still open to the public so go and take a dip without any safety advice whatsoever.
Therefore, I just wanted to reiterate the main points for staying safe whilst open water swimming, especially as we are now in a cold winter spell in the United Kingdom which makes any open water swimming much more extreme in its nature, and therefore not to be taken lightly.
Royal National Lightboat Institution Swim Safety Advice
The dramatic footage of the rescue in the Bristol Channel can be viewed here and thankfully it came to a happy conclusion. This is no critic of the individual involved, she was an experienced swimmer and had already taken precautions that possibly saved her life (she was wearing a tow float that was very visible in the water and also she was not swimming alone as she had friends on the beach who raised the alarm) but highlights that no matter how experienced a swimmer we must always treat open water swimming with the greatest respect and this is even more applicable to the inexperienced, especially in colder water temperatures or where there is a tide or current running.
As part of the accompanying article a spokesman for the RNLI, whilst acknowledging that “The benefits of outdoor swimming are well documented” also went on to state that “please be aware of any risks before you enter the water particularly if you are new to our area or are thinking of giving it a go for the first time”.
They also issued a list of steps for staying safe in the water that I feel are well worth repeating here:
- Never swim alone, always go with someone else to a familiar spot
- Always check the weather forecast, including tide information and wave height
- If in doubt, stay out, there is always another day to go for a swim
- Take plenty of warm clothes for before and after your dip, along with a hot drink to help you warm up again when you come out of the water
- Wearing a wet suit will help increase your buoyancy and reduce the chances of suffering cold water shock
- Be seen – wear a brightly coloured swim cap and consider using a tow float
- Acclimatize to the water temperature slowly – never jump straight in
- Stay in your depth and know your limits
- If you get into trouble remember FLOAT to live by leaning back in the water, extending your arms and legs, and resisting the urge to thrash around to gain control of your breathing
- Take a mobile phone in a waterproof pouch
Open Water Safety for Beginners
As part of my introduction I mentioned the number of articles now circulating extolling the virtues of Open Water swimming and even more recently cold water swimming, which as leisure pastimes are really gaining in popularity.
As an open water swimmer myself I can certainly agree with this, an early summer morning in a lake with some swans as company or flying overhead is for me an experience not to be missed. Also, everyone has to start somewhere so at some point you will be a novice and maybe drawn to the open water via similar articles and it is at this point that relevant safety advice is paramount.
I have seen both ends of the spectrum where when done correctly the confidence gained is immense and it is a beginning of a passion for open water swimming, but also unfortunately where someone has their confidence “shot” by a bad experience and will either never go back or do so but from that point on wards it always seems to be a struggle.
So if looking at Open Water swimming for the first time I would recommend the following as a minimum and I have just fleshed these out from the points above:
Swim Safety Steps
- Never swim alone, always go with someone else to a familiar spot.
- Please do not be tempted to just find some open water and start there and then. Take time to find any local swimming groups (there are many now on Facebook) or friends who also are interested, but initially always find someone who is experienced in open water swimming and who will be right there with you when you take those initial steps.
- Alternatively, there are now a lot of open water venues that will have lifeguards on duty where you pay a fee to swim, a good example being Box End in Bedfordshire. There are also many more such venues springing up to cater for the new demand so one fairly local should not be difficult to find.
- Make sure you are aware of the water temperature.
- A confession, I am “not” a cold water swimmer. I will swim in cold water with the proper equipment but personally I like my water a little warmer. As a beginner I would not recommend going into water first time, especially out of your depth, if the water is less that 16°C/61°F.
- Wearing a wet suit will help increase your buoyancy and reduce the chances of suffering cold water shock.
- Definitely look to initially wearing an open water swimming wet suit, even if it your intention to ultimately swim without one. They help with buoyancy, give confidence in the water and also help in keeping you warmer in colder water.
- A good wet suit will probably be the most expensive purchase for your open water swimming, but there is good value to be found and it is a purchase well worth making. Also, you can usually pick one up second hand if necessary and most manned open water facilities will have wetsuits for hire (as well as open water swimming lessons available for a fee).
- Be seen – wear a brightly coloured swim cap and consider using a tow float.
Tow floats are brilliant and in my opinion are a must have especially if you are swimming out of your depth without a wet suit as they will give you the required buoyancy in case of emergencies. Basically, you do not know you are wearing one and it just tows along behind you as you swim. They are highly visible from the shore or to other water users, can be used to store items as you swim, i.e. a bottle of water, mobile phone, car keys, or for when I am swimming on holiday my sun glasses and a book. Also, a bright swim hat is also excellent for visibility.
- Acclimatize to the water temperature slowly – never jump straight in.
- As mentioned earlier, know the water temperature and take it slowly. Once in try to put your face into the water to acclimatize.
- Stay in your depth and know your limits.
- Always be self-aware of yourself whilst you are swimming. If you are not feeling comfortable then don’t push it, get out as there is always another day. No matter how experienced you will have a bad swim where you think “what was that about, I didn’t enjoy that one bit”. Next time, you wonder what all the fuss was about.
- If you get into trouble remember FLOAT to live by leaning back in the water, extending your arms and legs, and resisting the urge to thrash around to gain control of your breathing.
- This is where the buoyancy of a wet suit or tow float becomes of real value.
So Should I Open Water Swim?
The enjoyment and feel-good factor of open water swimming and being nearer to nature is something to be experienced and cherished, and this is without even mentioning the health benefits of regular exercise and the companionship you can get from joining others in the water. It is a pastime that is becoming more and more popular and the number of facilities to cater for the new demand is expanding with it, giving much more accessibility especially for beginners. But in all of this, no mater how experienced, reminding yourself of a few swimming safety facts now and then and to respect the elements that we swim in is no bad thing.
If you have any comments on the above or anything else you think I should add please let me know by commenting below.
Thanks. If we can all keep safe in open water then that is a bonus.