The warmer weather has been very slow to arrive this year, but finally the tide seems to have turned and temperatures are rising. The appearance of the sun naturally draws people to outdoor activities in greater numbers, and this includes open water swimming

The activity has soared in popularity over the last few years and now many people regularly pay visits to the UK’s lakes, rivers and coastal areas for exercise, recreation or to take part in organised open water swimming clubs and events. 

Outdoor swimming can be a wonderfully invigorating experience and a great way to bond with other people and make new friends. However, it’s important to know how to stay safe and take reasonable caution when swimming in open water. 

The Royal Life Saving Society (RLSS) have issued some advice ahead of the summer to help people enjoy the water safely. Yahoo News reports that the Charity Director of RLSS UK and Paul Kay, Professor of Water Science at The University Of Leeds, have teamed up to draw up the following five guidelines:

Know your capabilities as a swimmer

Swimming in open water is a very different experience to swimming in an indoor heated pool, so it’s important to understand your capabilities and limitations. Before entering the water, consider how far you can swim without needing to stop and rest. How comfortable are you with deep water and much colder temperatures?

Always follow the safety and guidance instructions at the site, and do not jump or dive into deep water. 

Have the correct gear

It’s recommended to wear a wetsuit for extra insulation and buoyancy in the water. At this time of year, outdoor water temperatures are still very cold and if you are unused to outdoor swimming it can take time to adjust to the water temperature. 

Plunging in too quickly with no protection can increase the risk of cold water shock, which can trigger dangerous increases in breathing, heart rate, and blood pressure. This can compromise your ability to think and act quickly and could lead to a very serious situation because the next stage is loss of muscle control. 

Always listen to your body, enter the water slowly and get out of the water as soon as you feel too cold or uncomfortable. As soon as you get out of the water, get dry and change into warm clothes. Have a hot drink to warm up, but delay having a hot bath or shower for at least half an hour, otherwise your blood pressure might rise too fast, causing dizziness.

You should also wear a brightly coloured cap to make yourself easily identifiable to other water users such as paddleboarders, and easier to spot from the shore should you need help. 

Do not swim alone

The RLSS advises against swimming alone, so that if you do get into difficulty someone else can raise the alarm or provide direct assistance. For extra safety, look for venues that have a trained lifeguard on duty, such as an aqua park or dedicated swimming pond or lake. 

Make a risk assessment

If you are swimming in a new place, assess the risks first. Hazards to look out for include submerged objects such as rocks hidden beneath the surface of dark water; strong currents; sudden changes in the depth of water; uneven banks; and signs or contamination or pollution in the water. 

Always plan your exit route in advance, and ensure that it is clear of reeds, rocks, deep mud and other obstructions. If the water is busy with other types of activity such as kayaking, windsurfing and so on, consider how safe and visible you will be to the other users. 

Assess the quality of the water

Unfortunately the quality of the water in Britain’s rivers and seas is not always of a good standard. There has been a lot of media coverage about excessive sewage discharge at certain sites, and water companies are now legally required to publish data about raw sewage overflow volumes. 

Research the area in advance, and visually inspect the water before you get in for signs of untreated sewage, chemical pollution, toxic algae blooms, or agricultural waste. The cleanest areas are in the upper reaches of river catchments, such as in Snowdonia, the Scottish Highlands and the Lake District. 

Sarah A