Donal Buckley of LoneSwimmer.com has kindly compiled for us this brief guide. In it, he gives useful tips on how to ensure personal safety while swimming in open water:
Some useful tips for Safe Swimming in open water…
The term “open water” can refer to sea, lake or river, and experience in one of these does not necessarily translate directly to the others. Some safety tips are specific and some are general but safety should always be paramount when swimming in open water.
Tip 1 – Swim in Groups
When swimming open water, the number one rule is to always swim in groups. With a group there is a greater chance of recognising unsafe swimming conditions. In case of accidents or hypothermia, or even miscalculation of swim times and distances, groups can help an injured or tired swimmer, recognise early hypothermia, or maybe have someone who can call for or go for help.
Tip 2 – Wear a Watch
A great, but often overlooked, safety tip is to wear a watch. You should be sure of your entry or start time, because it is easy to lose track of time in water, and especially in cold water you need to stick to immersion times with which you are experienced. Hypothermia slows the mental processes and ability to accurately judge your own condition, so if you discover from the elapsed time that you are moving far slower than usual, this may be an indicator that you are colder than you realise and that your stroke rate and speed have decreased.
Tip 3 – Plan a Safe Exit
With all location types, it’s essential before you enter that you have planned a safe exit point, and as important, that you can recognise it from the water. Will the tide have changed such that a sand entry has become a rock exit? Will rough water make getting out dangerous? From the few centimetres height of your eyes above the water, will you be able to see inlets? How will you recognise the exit point if you are not already very familiar with it?
Tip 4 – Identify Useful Landmarks
The best way to recognise new exit or finish points is to focus on something on the skyline above the exit. From water, especially with lakes and the sea, the shore often all looks the same, and small inlets disappear as all the land presents a flat front to a swimmer. A mountain might be a good marker from a couple of miles away but not from closer, where a building or noticeable tree on the skyline might be best. Anything even a few metres above the surface might not be visible if the water is any way rough or choppy, so make sure it’s well above your destination.
Tip 5 – Freshwater Challenges
With rivers it’s important to remember that the fastest flow is in the centre and the flow is slower toward the banks, so when going upstream, stay to the banks to make better progress. And unless you are sure of what you are doing, staying closer to the banks when swimming downstream will allow you greater time to react to imminent problems. However with rivers, there are greater problems with obstructions, often man-made, like fallen trees or the ubiquitous shopping trolley, which are more likely to be closer to the banks. The problem of these obstructions also applies to lakes. With lakes and slow-moving rivers the problem of reeds also arises, and great care should be taken to avoid heavy reed growth so as not to become entangled. Another problem associated with rivers and lakes is that of sucking mud. Standing in lakes to be avoided unless you know or can clearly see the bottom, as it is possible to become trapped in mud. This, of course, is another good reason for swimming in groups.
Tip 6 – Beware of Cuts
A not-so-insignificant problem with all open water swimming are serious lacerations to the hands and more commonly feet, especially after exiting, when you may be cold and not notice cuts due to numbness. Footwear should be worn as much as possible around these areas and it is common to see very experienced swimmers leave sandals right at the closest point to their entry and exit points.
In all open water swimming, due care and consideration should be given to every action and swim, with contingency plans and people knowing the approximate expected finish time. And remember:
If you don’t know, don’t go!
For regular swimming related articles from Donal, go to LoneSwimmer.com, his personal swimming blog.