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Open water swimming safety guide
Safety isn’t the most glamorous of subjects but one that should never be ignored.
With any sport or activity, safety should always be treated with utmost importance, especially if you’re new to it.
If you’re a swimmer fascinated by wild swimming, whether it be in freshwater or saltwater locations, but apprehensive about its safety, this blog is here to answer your essential questions.
We bring together the advice from water safety experts and dryrobe® partners the RNLI and RLSS UK for this ultimate open water swimming safety guide so you can confidently enjoy your time in the water.
Before you start open-water swimming, it’s essential to speak to a healthcare professional if you’re ever unsure if open water swimming is for you regarding health-related issues.
Is open water swimming dangerous?
According to the RLSS, many drownings at open water sites are a result of a lack of knowledge and understanding of open water safety.
While there are certainly safety aspects to consider, as long as you’re clued up on water safety and know what to look for and expect in the water, it can be a life-transforming and relatively safe activity.
Prioritising safety is not only crucial for individual swimmers but also helps in promoting a positive and responsible swimming culture so everyone can enjoy its benefits.
Two aspects that should be high on the priority list of consideration are both choosing a suitable location and understanding cold water shock, which we’ll explore more in-depth later. However, there are some definite places that you should never swim.
- Stagnant lakes
- Urban rivers
- Reedy shallows
- Flood water
The safest places are lifeguarded/supervised beaches and outdoor pools. As you would expect, these will have lifeguards watching over swimmers’ safety.
Open water swimming guidelines
To ensure a safe experience in the water, preparation is vital. Not only does this mean selectively choosing a safe location but it also means making sure you have everything in place to stay warm before and after your swim - there is great emphasis on this for cold water swimming or swimming in colder seasons of the year.
Poor preparation heightens risks such as accidents, fatigue, hypothermia, and cold water shock. Therefore it is always good to make sure you have read up on water risks such as cold water and ensure you have all you need to get warm once out of the water - we’ll cover more on this later!
Again, this is an absolute must!
Cold water is the biggest threat to an inexperienced open water swimmer and sadly a fundamental underlying cause of death from drowning.
Cold water shock can take anyone by surprise if unprepared, so recognising it and knowing how to handle it is vital.
There are many factors that can make you more susceptible to the cold including lack of sleep, dehydration and not eating enough.
Sudden immersion in cold water essentially makes it harder for the heart to pump blood around the body and a rise in blood pressure causes swimmers to instinctively gasp. The ability to control breathing is affected and results in panic and inhalation of water. In extreme cases, it can also cause cardiac arrest.
Therefore, start with shorter swims and increase the time gradually over a few weeks to gradually acclimatise yourself to the water temperatures. Take your time entering the water so your body can adapt to the cold. Under no circumstances should you jump or dive straight in as this is one sure ticket to cold water shock. The RNLI provides further insight to aclimatisation here.
For more advice on acclimatisation in cold water, check out our 5 tips for winter swimming blog with Olympic open water swimmer, coach, and dryrobe® Ambassador, Keri-anne Payne.
Always assess the weather conditions
Checking the weather conditions should be your first step in swim preparation and is especially important if you’re swimming in a new location.
You need to be aware of the conditions and check extreme or dangerous weather isn’t forecast, especially if you’re swimming by the coast.
This could include conditions such as:
- High winds
Extreme and unpredictable weather conditions can create a variety of safety issues. For example, larger waves, rip tides, limited visibility, wind chill, and strong currents to name a few.
Once you get to your destination and if the water seems too rough, don’t feel ashamed to not swim. In the words of the RNLI, ‘If in doubt, don’t go out.’
The RNLI provides links to online weather forecasts and tide times for the UK here.
The impact of the weather is not exclusive to being in the water, cold weather when you get out of the water can also impact your safety. Cold weather will keep reducing your body temperature when you’re out of the water too so if the air temperature is cold, reduce your time in the water.
Check tide times and currents
Tides and currents play a major role in water safety. Always check tide times in advance and scout out the location for currents.
Keep an eye out for safety signs and never swim anywhere that is signposted as a ‘no swimming and/or ‘danger zone or is red flagged.
Knowing how to spot and swim out of rip currents is also essential. If you’re unsure of how to spot rip currents, please check out the video from the RNLI here.
A breakdown of how to get out of rip currents, as advised by the RNLI:
- If you’re able to stand, wade over swim.
- Travel parallel to the shore until you’re out of the current.
- Head towards the shore.
- Raise your hand and shout for help with the assistance of lifeguards.
Choose open water swimming locations with lifeguards present whenever possible
It can be pretty daunting choosing where to dip if you’re new to swimming. The safest advice is to select lifeguarded locations and swim between the red and yellow flags as this area will be closely monitored by trained lifeguards.
Should you ever find yourself in danger, put one arm straight in the air to signal help. Don’t wave as this can be confusing and not get noticed as a signal for help. Then shout ‘help’ as loudly as you can. Face away from the waves to protect your airway from water. For any more information about this, please head to the RNLI website.
The water can be an unpredictable place and even the most experienced swimmers can potentially find themselves in life-threatening situations and require the help of a lifeguard.
Assessing risks in the water can be difficult without the monitoring of lifeguards so extreme caution should be taken, especially in deceptively cold and deep places such as reservoirs and quarries.
Pay attention to strong currents, rip tides, or hazardous underwater features.
One of the first things you should look for is how to safely get in and out of the blue space you’ll be swimming in and mentally clarify your exit from the water. You will also need to scan the area for any strong currents, tidal flow, and wind direction.
Always swim within your depth and try to remain parallel to land/ shore. Depending on the conditions, you may prefer to swim closer to shore or land.
Be aware of windy conditions as this can push you off track.
Places that require extra caution of hazards include:
- Rivers with weirs.
- Anywhere with fast-flowing water.
- Potentially polluted waters that are near livestock, estuarial waters, and rainwater run-offs.
- Busy locations that have other water users such as boats, kayakers, and surfers - a tow float is necessary here.
- Uneven banks and river beds.
- It’s also worth noting that some hazards may not be visible such as underwater objects.
To check for potential hazards, always do your research which can be done online, and ask other water users at the location as well as keep an eye out for any signs on site.
Plan your equipment
The right equipment can make a huge difference in being spotted in the water and staying warm.
- Visibility is essential, so wearing a brightly coloured swim cap or using a tow float is highly recommended.
- If you’re opting to wear a wetsuit, it should be properly fitted to ensure it does the job it’s designed to do and also be the right thickness for the water temperature. They also provide buoyancy!
- Goggles improve your visibility when in the water while protecting your eyes from water irritants.
- Ensure you have adequate, warm clothing for when you get out of the water. Not only will you want to get changed quickly to remove any cold, damp clothing but ensuring you’re protected from extreme weather can also help to stabilise your body temperature. The dryrobe® Advance is specifically designed to allow you to do just this. Find out more here.
- Preparing a hot drink to welcome you back on land is highly recommended to help warm you internally!
Always go with a buddy! One of the most promoted pieces of advice from water safety experts is not to swim alone. Whether you’re with one friend or a group, having some company is essential and should be undebatable for remote or isolated locations.
Not only is it socially nice to have someone with you but it’s also essential in terms of safety in case an emergency situation arises.
If you cannot swim with a companion, always tell someone where you plan to swim and your estimated time of return.
Don’t ignore the basics
Some of the below tips may seem like common sense but they’re core steps so you stay out of harm's way.
- Stay hydrated.
- Develop open-water swimming skills gradually, starting with shorter distances and gradually increasing as your confidence and fitness improve.
- Take regular breaks and listen to your body to prevent fatigue and overexertion.
- Consider taking open water swimming lessons or joining a swimming club to improve your skills and gain more knowledge about safety practices.
Open water swimming techniques
Sighting and navigation
When you’re in open water, it’s easy to veer off course as there are no lanes to keep you in place.
Instead, swimmers use markers in their surroundings to keep them on track and help with navigation. Choose something bold and easy to say at your end location. You ideally want it to be unobstructed throughout your swim, taller than a person, and unaffected by a different light.
When coming up for a breath, swimmers will lift their heads up instead of the side to check their location.
Swimmers use this technique because it helps them to remain in a streamlined position, saves energy, and maintains sighting.
Sighting is important for the performance of competitive swimmers but also for recreational swimmers as it helps you to identify any hazards in your swim space and keeps you in line with where you need to safely be.
For more information, such as how to sight in choppier water, check out the advice from Swim England or the Outdoor Swimming Society for tips on sighting techniques.
Pace and rhythm
Open water swimming is a longer affair that requires a consistent pace and a regular rhythm, there are no opportunities to rest or drink some water like you would be able to at the side of the pool, for example. Perfecting your pace and rhythm will help you to save energy and ensure you can swim for longer periods of time.
For open water swimmers who are just starting out, It’s best to start slow and gradually pick up the pace once you know you can.
As a general prediction, those who can confidently nonstop pool swim for half an hour should be able to open water swim for approximately 15 minutes before feeling it.
No activity is straightforward when you’re in nature and open water swimming will present changing conditions that you must adapt to thanks to the unpredictability of the weather, swell, and other natural hazards.
Ideally, it’s best to practise in different conditions proactively so you’re ready for them if they occur unexpectedly during a swim. It is also recommended to learn the different techniques for different conditions such as strokes and breathing for different wave heights.
Entering and exiting the water
- Highlight the hazards/considerations of getting into or out of the water.
- Rough water, rocks, unexpected depths as you exit/enter shallows should also be considered.
- At worst it is uncomfortable, at worst, dangerous.
- Tips on how best to exist/enter the water.
- How to move through shallows e.g. dolphin dives.
Always follow water safety advice when open water swimming. Incredibly informative advice is available free online from the RNLI and RLSS UK, please check their websites for additional information.
If you’d like more guidance on where to begin with open water swimming, head to our blog The benefits of cold water swimming and how to get started for a full breakdown of tips.
Make sure you have the correct pre and post-swim kit at the ready to help keep you warm. Find out why the dryrobe® Advance is trusted by elite athletes including Team GB for the swimming events at the Rio 2016 and Tokyo 2020 Olympics and Paralympics and its performance benefits here.