Top five tips to stay safe while swimming in open water this summer

It’s been one of the hottest summers for many years and more scorching temperatures are on their way this week. But with the heat, we often see young people, particularly men, tempted to cool off or jump into open water.

Supervised sites, like a lifeguarded beach, are the safest places to swim.

Supervised sites are the safest places to swim.

During the July heatwave, which lasted for around three weeks, we are aware of at least 21 deaths for people who were swimming or playing around water – about the same number as we normally see for a complete summer month.

Water can look incredibly tempting especially on a hot day and I understand fully why people want to get in and cool off.

Although I don’t want to be the grumpy old man of summer, there are some things that need a bit of thought before you get into the water.

Here’s my top five:

1. Go to swim at a lifeguarded beach, lido, swimming pool or bathing spot. This is the single most positive thing you can do for your safety. Last year, there were no deaths in lifeguarded swimming pools and, as far as I can tell, there were also no preventable deaths at lifeguarded spots such as beaches and lidos.

In addition, you will be swimming in clean water and there will be an ice cream van too.

2. Take it slowly – think before you enter the water. A common scenario is when a young male, typically aged between 15 and 30, jumps or rushes into cooler water (15˚C or less). Remember there can be a big difference between surface water temperature, which can be in the 20˚Cs at this time of year, and the layers below, which can be much cooler at or below that critical 15˚C. The cooler temperatures can lead to a swimmer going into cold shock.

Cold shock is the term we use for the impact of cold water on the body. In short, after a quick entry into water your heart rate jumps up, you start to hyperventilate and lose the ability to control your breathing, whilst at the same time your muscles cool down and you start to lose the ability to swim.

Jumping in into cooler water can lead to cold shock and swim failure.

Jumping in into cooler water can lead to cold shock and swim failure.

If this happens in a cold bath, you can jump out, but in open water, it’s not so easy, and ultimately – in the worst case – you inhale water and the drowning process begins.

There are a few ways to limit this:

(i) Get in slowly, get used to the water conditions and check out the swim spot

(ii) Wear a wetsuit, and/or a buoyancy aid

(iii) Swim outside all year round more or less, and become a habituated open water swimmer – training your body to get used to cold water temperatures.

Realistically, if you are not going to wear a wetsuit or train to be an open water swimmer, the best thing you can do is get in slowly and get used to the conditions.

3. If you want to drink alcohol, have your beer after you swim, not before. It affects your judgement, can make you more susceptible to cold and in my opinion it tastes much better in that order!

4. When you’re not at a supervised site, be sociable and go with other people. If someone else is there, they can raise the alarm and help you out, or vice versa. It could be a lifesaver.

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Warning signs are there for a reason.

5. On a final note, if you see a site with signs that say “don’t swim/deep water/beware”, it’s your decision if you choose to ignore them, but be aware that this might be backed up by local laws. Ultimately, the reason for the sign is because the manager or someone who knows the area really well is of the opinion that they can’t make the place safe enough for you to use.

As a minimum, think really carefully before you go in, particularly if the signs point out hidden currents and structures, such as weirs, deep and cold water.

Hopefully, that is some help, so enjoy the hot weather while it lasts!

David Walker, leisure safety manager at The Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents (RoSPA).

For more water safety information visit www.rospa.com/leisuresafety/adviceandinformation/watersafety/

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