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Dying to swim

Updated: Sep 27, 2020

You may have noticed that wild swimming is on the up following lockdown easing in summer 2020. With swimming pools closed for almost 6 months it’s no wonder people who regularly swim have taken to the open water but it’s not all regular pool swimmers that have taken up the activity. With the increasing popularity of it, there are regular social media posts, featured articles and people talking about outdoor swimming everywhere but unfortunately the fact is the buzz around wild swimming can lead to misadventure and on occasion sad loss of life.

The island community were shocked and saddened to hear of a young man on holiday losing his life after taking a swim in a loch in his swim shorts. It's reported he swam out from the shore and was seen waving a short time before disappearing. Desperately sad for all involved and a needless waste of life, but we learn from tragic events like this as it highlights the risks that wild swimming has without preparation, experience and local knowledge.

The popular slogan ‘swim wild and free’ should not be ‘swim wild and care-free’ which in 2020 has seemed to increase if social media posts and HM Coastguard call outs are an accurate reflection.

So what is ‘safe’ wild swimming? How do you start? What do you need to know? Is safety relative? The short answer is yes. With wild swimming we are all responsible for our own actions usually but there are ways to ease you into this life affirming activity without the unnecessary risk.

When you start wild swimming you often don’t know what you need to know so joining a social swimming group is a good place to start. Join a group, watch the chat amongst experienced swimmers, read up on popular topics and look at where swimmers regularly swim. There are lots of little swim groups around Lewis & Harris but the bigger ones are the Hebridean Sea Swimmers and the Wild Isle Swimmers. You’ll pick up lots of advice from local experienced swimmers and regular meet-ups are posted on social media if you wish to attend but be aware in a social swimming group, you swim at your own risk. If you happen to attend a group swim with varying swim abilities you might feel out of your depth literally and metaphorically so make sure you always swim within your own limitations and don’t be tempted to follow other swimmers if you’re not comfortable with it. It’s easy to get caught up in the exhilaration of cold water immersion but stay within your comfortable swim area and enjoy your swim on your terms. Always trust your gut and if in doubt, don’t go out.

If you feel you need a more structured or personalised introduction to the open water book lessons with a qualified open water coach and lifeguard. An open water coach may run regular group sessions for beginners through to the more advanced swimmer where you’ll learn about basic swimmer survival techniques, tides and currents, cold water physiology and local swim spots and knowledge. These group swims are usually lifeguarded so you can often explore further in the knowledge someone always has your back. You’ll also get the same social contact with other swimmers as you do in social swimming groups which can lead to finding a swim partner for social swimming and friends for life. It’s not free but you get what you pay for and often a lot more.

But why are so many people dying to swim? The real attraction of wild swimming is the stillness, peace, isolation and the connection to nature without the distraction of other people around. The sense of immersing your body into an unnatural environment where you are the guest, in a world you know little about. It’s that sense of discovery that brings us back time and time again. Not to take away from these purist notions, but given recent sad drownings you should consider the following points if this is the object of your desire:

1. Am I familiar with this body of water?

2. Do I know what’s underneath?

3. Do I understand cold water and it’s effects on the body?

4. Does anyone know where I am?

5. Can I see my entry and exit point clearly?

6. Can I been seen to other water users?

As an experienced open water coach I would say if you answer no to any of the above questions you shouldn’t go in. Stop and consider the benefit-risk ratio. You can make your swim much more pleasurable by being safe. If you’re inexperienced and you do go in without any safety equipment like a spotter, tow-float, wetsuit or means of communication stay within your depth (always) and treat it more like a little dip rather than an adventure which knows no bounds.

It can take months and even years for some to build up cold water tolerance to our waters. Cold water is defined as anything below 15 degrees Celsius in swimming. That covers just about every body of water in Scotland all year round, give or take some lochs in summer. Cold water immersion (if not done gradually) can cause cold water shock but also you can tire quicker as it uses a lot of energy. Your heart rate and blood pressure go up and sometimes you can hyperventilate if not used to it. Tiring easily can surprise you and can cause distress if you’re out of depth. Distress can lead to panic and panic can lead to drowning. Please don’t think it won’t happen to you. It can happen to anyone. Wearing a tow-float everytime you go swimming can provide a security blanket but also some visibility to other water users like boats etc. I always bring mine and it has pockets for my phone/radio. It’s not a buoyancy aid though but it can help you rest if you need to or store safety equipment.

If you want to enter the water for a dip or short swim and are not used to the area I’d recommend either not going in at all or following these principles:

1. Don’t go swimming alone

2. Enter slowly until your breathing calms

3. Splash your face and neck or submerge your head a few times until your breathing calms

4. Practice floating on your back before swimming

5. Stay within your depth always

6. Swim along the shore, not out

7. Think of your exit point (getting in can be easy but can you get out?)

Don’t let the joy of swimming wild and free kill you. You can still have a wonderful experience if you stop and think first.

Open water swimmers enjoying their achievements safely

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