Don’t swim alone – Even the most experienced swimmers can get into difficulty. It’s more fun with others anyway!
Float to live – If you get into difficulty 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.
Rips – 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.
Don’t jump in yourself – If you see a person or animal in distress in the water call immediately for help. If there is no public rescue equipment nearby, throw anything that will float.
In an emergency – Call 999 OR 112 and ask for the Coastguard or RNLI.
Do Your Own Risk Assessment and Plan Ahead
Frozen water – 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. Be careful with dogs – keep on a leash and don’t throw sticks or balls onto ice.
Weather – Check 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.
Tides – Seek local advice 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!
Self-check – If you are unwell, hungover, tired or haven’t eaten much consider postponing your swim to another day. All of these factors can impact how we feel during and after a cold swim. The cold puts a stress on the body and it is our ability to deal with that stress that enables us to reap the health benefits of cold water immersion.
Know Your Limits
Water temperature – If you are not acclimatised to cold water consider wearing a wetsuit initially and gradually acclimatise throughout the year as the temperature drops.
Time in the water – Make an assessment based on the outside weather conditions, water temperature, what equipment you have and how you feel. If you are inexperienced limit your swim time and if you are tired or unwell postpone your swim to another day.
Fitness and Distance – Swimming in an indoor pool is very different to swimming outside. You may not be able to swim as far or as fast especially when the water is cold because muscles cool more quickly in cold water. Let your breathing settle before heading off into your swim.
Be Aware of the Dangers of Cold Water Swimming
Cold water shock – The sudden cooling of the skin by cold water causes an involuntary gasp for breath and an increase in blood pressure. Enter the water gradually and keep your head above the water until your breathing has settled. This takes two to three minutes. Cold water shock can cause heart attacks, even in the relatively young and healthy.
Muscle incapacitation – The body cools in stages. Muscles cooling can cause legs and limbs to feel heavy and impede your ability to swim. Wearing a buoyancy vest or carrying a tow float is essential in minimising risk.
Hypothermia – This is the final stage of the cooling process and can be fatal. This is when your core drops to a dangerous temperature. A good rule of thumb is to imagine your tummy has a warm bowl of porridge inside it. If that feeling starts to subside it may mean your core body temperature is dropping and it is time to get out of the water and start warming up.
Afterdrop – Your body continues to cool for some time after you exit the water. You are at your coldest 10 minutes after you get out. It’s important to get your wet clothes off and layers on as quickly as possible and start warming your body back up again. The time it takes to warm back up often depends on how long you were in the water and how deep your body cooled during that time.
Be Aware of your Surroundings
Visibility – When swimming in open water, especially in or around a harbour, you are vulnerable to being struck by power craft, boats and sailing boats. Be seen by wearing a brightly coloured swim hat and tow float.
Look out for others – Especially children. Drowning is not the violent, splashing call for help that most people expect.
Variable depths – Don’t jump in from a height in case the water is shallower than expected. Open bodies of water can have variable depths and even close to the shore, the depth can plummet.
Exit points – Make a note of where you get in and make sure you can get out again safely and easily.
Heed local warning signs – Dangerous algae, bacteria and viruses can be present in open water, especially in summer. Algae can be dangerous to humans and fatal for animals like dogs, so keep well away.
Protect the Environment
Help protect habitats – Rinse your wetsuit and gear in clean water before you use it again. This will help prevent the spread of invasive species or bacteria from one body of water to another.
Keep your distance from marine life – Interacting with them can cause distress to the animals and may put you in danger if they become aggressive. If you see a marine animal in difficulty contact British Divers Marine Life Rescue on their 24hr hotline: 01825 765546.
Leave no trace – Be sure to pick up all your things when you leave, especially rubbish.