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Taking Chances (some musings about life and outdoor swimming) by Norma MacLeod

Updated: Dec 3, 2023

I have never lived vicariously through the life of another. In my first week of primary school, I was at the headteacher’s office having created a wet toilet paper fight between the girls and boy’s toilets which resulted in a light graze of the three-tailed leather belt across my palm at the age of 5. Many more threats followed in our tiny primary school of 40 children, but I continued the mischief and have some great memories that were worth every tear and visit to the headteacher’s office.

Not much has changed really!

My relationship with swimming also started around that age. I was 5 the day I was dragged from the poolside by my ankles and forced to swim. I swam so fast to get away from my lay instructor (sadist) I never looked back. I did charity swims, swimming gala’s, summer training camps and even found myself in Portugal at the age of 13 rubbing shoulders with Olympians in outdoor swimming pools after being spotted by an Olympic coach on a holiday to the Outer Hebrides. I remember the sunburn more than the swims. In between weekend swimming meets travelling by ferry or air and staying with strangers, I achieved school sports champion one year and was the first female in a school triathlon in my soaking wet t-shirt and shorts. I was never going to be a school prefect though. I loved sports and having a laugh but the only thing I was confident in was my swimming and even then, the good and bad attention I had received was something I struggled to cope with. Hitting the local newspaper regularly can be overwhelming for an uneasy teenager in a small place where you know everyone and their cousins everywhere you go. The whispers ‘that’s the swimmer’ etched in my mind like a curse bringing out the worst in the bullies at school and swimming clubs. Good news travels fast but bad news even faster in a small place and I fell victim to both after having my first child at 17 whilst my father went through cancer treatment.

So, what has this got to do with a blog on swimming safely? A lot actually. By nature I have grabbed every opportunity (good or bad) throughout my life with a sense I might not get another chance and life is short. I have had rough with smooth, taken chances and got burnt from it. I’m no major thrill-seeker but I am happy to say yes to most things and struggle to say no in fear of missing out. FOMO hits me hard after being a single parent since the age of 17 and it'll probably increase after finishing treatment for breast cancer this year. My FOMO has got me into a lot of memorable situations but also very dangerous ones too. Each one, learning more about myself than the last but thankfully still here to tell the tale and learn from it. And that's not just in swimming.

The bobble hat and me became close friends during treatment!

In contrast, professionally I have never been this way. Intensive care nurses (or any nurse) are known for being risk averse, methodical and prepared to act in an emergency. Skills I have taken on to other nurse roles and now into the sea. Not afraid to act but also prepared to avoid harm. Swim guiding is a relatively new occupation and there are not many qualifications out there yet that fit the bill of the swim guide. A solid understanding of safety, the environment and how to read water are skills built up over years of self-study but it also helps being married to a seafarer. (I think!) I have made mistakes in swimming when there were only a few people swimming, and I quickly learnt that my ignorance could be life threatening. Running Immerse Hebrides single-handedly, learning on the job and through training others I have observed quite a few regular mistakes that new swimmers make.

My husband Neil and I off on an adventure

So here are my top tips for new swimmers:

1. I am not going to say never swim alone, but well, never swim alone. Unexpected events can happen that are not swimming related and if it happens in water it’s highly likely you’re going to drown. If it happens on land you might have more of a chance of survival. I’m talking about asthma attacks, heart attacks, strokes those kinds of awful things. Things that you can lose consciousness or motor function with. Have someone watch you at the water’s edge or swim with you.

2. Before you get in, make sure you can get out! So many people jump in to cool off or swim away without a care in the world and then realise that there’s nowhere to get out. This can expose you to the cold for a lot longer and you’re at risk of hypothermia the longer you stay in. Yes, hypothermia is real. Check your exit before you enter. A bit of planning won’t hurt.

3. Don’t jump in if you are not familiar with the area. Our lochs are pretty black, why would you jump in without knowing what’s underneath? Also, they may be deeper or shallower than you expect and also colder. In the sea, although clearer, perception of depth is skewed. It could be much shallower than you think. Have you heard of cold water shock?

4. Cold water shock – when you can’t calm your breathing after entry to cold water. Your heart rate, breathing rate and blood pressure all shoot up. It’s involuntary. You can’t control this if you’ve just plunged in and you’re at high risk of inhaling water if you’re unable to get out. Inhaling water = drowning risk. If you enter the water gradually and within depth you are giving your body some warning and cold water shock eases off after around 1-2 minutes. If you find yourself experiencing cold water shock and feel like you’re in trouble, float onto your back, outstretch your arms, put your head back and try and relax. This will conserve energy and give you an opportunity to raise the alarm. Fight the urge to panic.

5. "I'm a strong swimmer!" Your pool swimming ability is not automatically transferred to the outdoors. You are a warm-blooded animal, the open water is cold. Physiological responses trump your pool prowess. Accept this and you'll be a winner.

6. Tow-floats. Not toe floats. You don’t attach them to your toe. That would be sore and I'm not actually sure how it could work! They go around your waist and follow behind you. Tow-floats are designed for visibility to other water users such as fast boats or to the emergency services (when you have been carried off with the tide you didn’t check!). They are also handy for carrying small items such as mobile phone, car keys, inhaler. I would never swim without one but if you don't have one stay close to the shore and never swim alone. They are relatively cheap but I'd recommend getting a dry bag type of at least 20L so you can carry items. Tow floats are not a substitute for good local knowledge and understanding of your own ability though. They won't save your life but they can provide a short rest if you hold onto them whilst floating.

Attached to the waist not the toe!

7. If it’s your first swim, think about all of the above plus swimming along the shore and not away from it. If it’s a loch it can get much colder and deeper than you expect if you swim out from the shore. Swimming out is often the first thing you'll see people do when they enter water. As exciting as it is swimming in an outdoor environment when you turn around you can often end up much further out than you expected, which can lead to anxiety if you feel too far out or struggle to get back. Perception of distance and depth is skewed outdoors so swim along the shore not out.

8. Lastly, except inland shallow areas in summer our waters are COLD. Cold water is any body of water under 15 degrees Celsius and this is where cold water shock has proven to take lives. The UK sea temperatures range from 5 degrees in winter to 15 degrees on average. There’s a misconception that the sea temperature doesn’t fall too much in winter. It does. Lochs are even colder than that in winter (sometimes freezing temperatures) but usually warmer than 15 degrees in summer, unless they're very deep. So enter slowly and gradually and stay within depth until the cold shock response has passed.

If you're still here after reading all of that but would still prefer a professional introduction to open water swimming, book in with a qualified Open Water Coach. There are a number of open water coaches around the UK offering introductions to open water safely. The Outdoor Swimmer magazine has a list of open water coaches HERE or seek to join a local swimming group with experienced open water swimmers. Beware of larger social swimming groups online. The sudden surge in outdoor swimming in the past year has increased the number of less experienced swimmers and some of the more experienced contributors and advice is being lost in the excitement of the new-found joys of wild swimming. Also, check out the Outdoor Swimming Society page for some great resources or look for the smaller local social swimming groups and seek out the most experienced swimmers who have a few years under their belt. You'll get the best local knowledge there.

Locally, we run regular beginner sessions on Saturdays with various levels of progression right through to boat supported long-distance adventure swims. You can book in HERE.

Lastly, if you are looking to understand tides, currents and how weather affects us as swimmers our next Safer Sea Swimming course with H2O Training starts on 15th November 2021. You can sign up HERE.

1,798 views2 comments


Susannah Nelson
Susannah Nelson
Dec 30, 2021

Thank you Norma, I loved your musings, interesting, informative and inspiring ,I'm checking out options to hopefully get to the Hebrides in 2022. Wishing you a Happy New Year.

Dec 30, 2021
Replying to

Thank you Susannah, I almost forgot I wrote this blog. It was towards the end of treatment and the brain fog was very present! Hope you make it up here. Happy New Year to you too.

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