From pool to seas & lochs

Swimming in open waters can be as daunting as it is thrilling! This is my guide on how to do it safely.

cold water dippers
Ready to take on open water after their cold water induction

It’s a good idea to join a local outdoor swimming group as they will always know the best, and safest, spots to swim. You’re guaranteed a warm welcome! In a group it can be tempting just to follow everyone else but we are all different and each swim will be different too depending on what we’ve eaten, how well we’ve slept, and how well we feel. 

Fingal’s Cave

It’s good practice to always do your own risk assessment. That means:

  • Checking the forecast. Wind can make a big difference on open water, turning calm water to choppy in moments. If the water is really rough, don’t go in. If you feel conditions change while in the water, err on the side of caution and get out until they are calm enough to go in again.
  • Seeking advice on local tide times and heights to make sure you don’t get cut off. Tide times and heights vary throughout the month and can easily catch you out if you haven’t checked them. Spring tides have greater depth range between high and low water, so at high tide the water comes in further up the beach. Neap tides have less variation, so at high tide the water won’t come in as far. This is crucial when considering how far out you are going to swim and less crucially but still important, where to leave your clothes on the beach!
  • Exercising caution. Open bodies of water can have variable depths so don’t jump in from a height in case the water is shallower than expected. Heed local warning signs – dangerous algae, bacteria and viruses can be present in open water, especially in summer. Take extreme care around ice and frozen bodies of water. In the UK it’s rare that ice becomes thick enough to support your weight.
Beautiful Iona

If you get into difficulty in the water don’t panic:

  • Roll onto your back with your legs and arms spread wide like a starfish and breathe normally. Wait until the panic subsides and your breathing returns to normal before calling for help or resuming your swim. 
  • If you get caught in a rip don’t swim against it. Swim parallel to the shore until you are free of the rip and then head for shore.
  • Make a note of landmarks. You can easily become disorientated and end up swimming further than you intended.
  • Stay in shallow waters initially within sight of the shore. Being able to see the bottom will help to dispel any irrational fears. 
  • If you need help call 999 OR 112 and ask for the Coastguard or RNLI.
The Ross of Mull beaches and one of its gems

Be visible to other water users and emergency services:

  • Wear a brightly coloured swim hat and tie a tow float around your waist. You can write your emergency details on there so that if you are picked up and find you can’t communicate properly (because of cold, fatigue, shock) emergency services know who you are. It provides a useful resting place too if you need to take a breather or just to stop and enjoy the view!
  • Keep your distance from marine life. They will come to you if they want to interact but take care not to approach them. They may become aggressive if they feel threatened or are protecting their young.
Seal encounters

Decide on the swim you want to do as that will determine what your wear and how long you stay in the water:

  • For a short dip you may decide a wetsuit is too much of a faff. But if you feel the cold in your extremities, neoprene booties and gloves are a really good idea and a woolly hat helps retain heat. Strip off seconds before you get in. Your body starts to cool as soon as it is exposed to cooler temperatures so don’t hang around.
  • If you know you’re going to be in the water a while then wearing a wetsuit is a good idea. There are always patches of water that are colder than others and you may end up being in the water longer than you’d intended. Consider putting it on halfway when you are at home, with layers on the top half and your robe over the top. That way you spend less time exposed to the elements – wetsuits can take a long time to put on especially if you’re not used to doing it. As the water enters the suit your body temperature will warm it.
Four wonderful ladies on our Dip & Chill Retreat

Be knowledgeable about what happens to the body in cold water. Your body cools in three stages:

  • Skin – This is the tingling sensation you feel when you first get into cold water. Some describe it as pins and needles or a burning sensation. 
  • Muscles – Muscles can start to feel heavy as they cool. You may find it becomes harder to maintain good technique. 
  • Core – We should avoid getting to this stage. Warning signs are constant shivering, slurred speech, starting to feel warm. The best-case scenario is a poor recovery and the worst case is hypothermia which can be life threatening. A warm core is like having a ‘bowl of warm porridge’ inside your tummy. Keep that feeling throughout your swim.
Tobermory’s mermaids

Aim for a good recovery:

  • Have your layers laid out in the order in which you want to put them back on (wrap them in a hot water bottle for maximum warmth!); have a warm drink and snack ready to enjoy once you’re dressed.
  • Drink before, during and after your swim. The body is very efficient at protecting the core when we are cold by stripping the blood of water (by making us pee) so we can be a little dehydrated and thirsty after a cold swim.
  • If we don’t allow ourselves the appropriate time to warm up and recover we can end up feeling depleted and tired. The time it takes to warm back up will depend on how long you were in the water and how deep your body cooled during that time. Rest and refuel.

Stay safe and enjoy! X