Through the recent good weather, and with ankles/achilles too crook to run, I’ve really taken to Open Water Swimming. Specifically sea swimming, but also considering lakes and other inland areas, I am enjoying the challenge not only in swimming as a skill that I’ve neglected but also in the nuances and natures of different bodies of water. However, as we all know, the risks of open water swimming must be well understood in order to safely appreciate this environment correctly.
These are notes, and certainly not exhaustive ones, of what I have discovered so far as a newbie myself.
Know the Beach
The sea is just water. It’s the solid bits all around and in it that cause the problems, coupled with tides. While we can see the surrounding topography, the danger lurks beneath. We have no way of seeing or understanding what’s under the waves, nor how it affects the activity of the water, there are ways to find out.
The Beach Guide is a good place to start for research if you’ve not been to the site yet. Weather, tides, parking areas, shops local knowledge, and some updated commentary.
Google. As is so often the case these days, Google It. You can find a great deal about the detail of a new place with a simple search. Find a local outdoor swimming group on social media and ask them directly.
Beach Information Boards and Flags. Every public UK beach has an information board showing the critical information about the hazards and dangers unique to that particular spot. IT MUST BE READ! Likewise the beach Flags. Understand what they are indicating before you set foot in the water; conditions can change suddenly and the flags are the update. Learn more about the flags on the RNLI website.
If you cannot swim 500m in a pool, you certainly cannot swim 500m in open water. The water temperature alone will sap your strength. Tide, currents and hazards will sap your strength. Know your own limits, then ramp them back further, especially on your first few forays in to open water. Judging open water distance is difficult for the uninitiated; Google Maps is good to get a strong approximation of a planned swim. Instead of going out for a single long distance, consider breaking up your swim in to short laps so that you’re never far from the shore or your start point.
Report your Location
Ideally, you’ll have someone on the shore while you swim at all times, especially in new areas. Once in trouble you can be overwhelmed far too quickly.
At the very least, let someone know where you will be swimming exactly, how far and how long you intend being out. With smartphones and built-in GPS, giving precise locations on land has never been easier.
I always make a point of chatting to any locals I happen to see on the shore too, just so someone keeps an eye on me.
Speedos and goggles.
I’m kidding…kind of.
Wetsuit. At the basic level, swimming should require nothing more than a swimming costume of whichever gender. However, the water temperature will entirely dictate this. A simple 3mm shortie wetsuit can suffice in all but the coldest UK waters but a specific swimming wetsuit or triathlon suit should be considered for comfort of warmth and ergonomics.
Hat. You might look like a bit of a title but I recommend a bright (not blue or black) neoprene or rubber swim hat. You will lose an incredible amount of heat from your head, necessitating the hat, and a bright colour allows you to be seen on dull days.
Ear Plugs. After recently suffering with blocked ears, I recommend ear plugs if you’re prone to the same. Cheap and effective, they block water but not sound.
Nose Clips. I don’t respond well to these but I know others who swear by them. Even a minor ‘chop’ will result in water entering through the nose, inhibiting good breathing, causing nausea and worse.
Decathlon is a great amateur sports shop these days and it offers a wide range of swimming options at a good price.
So, know your location, know yourself, know your equipment. Open Water Swimming is a great option for superb genetal fitness levels but there are hazards that have to be understood and prepared for.
Have a great swim!