With the combination of current pool closures due to COVID-19 and the improvement in the UK weather, there is notably a rise in open water swimming at swim centres, lakes, rivers and beaches across England. Especially, since Open Water Swimming is now permitted by the Government in England as part of the COVID recovery strategy. With more and more people dipping their toes into open water swimming (pun intended) it is increasingly important to familiarise yourself with water safety, as whilst outdoor swimming is allowed, safety remains paramount. There are huge differences between pool swimming and open water swimming, and many further contrasts in swimming in lakes and the sea.
SH2OUT, a collaboration between British Triathlon, Swim England and the Royal Life Saving Society UK (RLSS), have released their latest COVID-19 guidance to Open Water Swimmers, which I strongly advise you read before participating (see their online resource here). You can also read my latest blog on general Open Water Swimming tips here.
In addition to this, the 12 – 19 June 2020 marks the RLSS Drowning Prevention Week (DPW). Now in it’s 7th Year DPW aims to help everybody across the UK and Ireland enjoy the water safely. Each year there is a sad spike in fatal drowning accidents during the Summer months. With COVID-19 restrictions resulting in reduced lifeguard services, especially at Beaches (the RNLI aim to operate a 30% service this summer), now more than ever it is vital to practice water safety.
When it comes to Open Water, I am predominantly a lake swimmer, and I am acutely aware of the differences and challenges between swimming in lakes and the sea. With this in mind, I recently caught up with fellow triathlete, ASICS FrontRunner and good friend of mine, Victoria Stears, to discuss all things sea swimming. Here are our top tips for those considering or participating in sea swimming:
The tips below are anecdotal based on our experiences, please continue to check Government advice and guidance from the RNLI. Please note not all coastlines are suitable or safe for swimming. Please check and make sure you’re swimming in safe conditions
Plan ahead and check the tide times
One of the main differences between lake swimming and sea swimming are the tides. The tidal range in the UK can vary by location, and tides themselves are subject to daily, seasonal and weather changes. This means that coastlines are transient features and beaches/ shorelines can change, sometimes rapidly. Planning ahead is essential and can save you the disappointment of not being able to swim, or having an exhausting swim against the tide.
Victoria recommends planning your ahead before you swim, including checking local tides:
High tide happens twice a day and you generally have enough water to swim for 2hrs either side of the tide – that essentially creates a 4hr window twice a day where you can swim. It’s also important to understand at what point the tide turns and to swim with the direction the tide is flowing in – at exactly high tide the tide switches direction. There’s no point trying to swim against the tide as it’s exhausting and won’t really find yourself moving from your starting point. Swimming should always be enjoyable, not a chore. I find the TideTimes website the best place to check on the times of my high tide. The exception to this is if you live near a tidal pool which you can swim in at low tide.
Think about the safest route
In addition to planning ahead, safety is a huge part of sea swimming. Tides, beach profiles, winds and prevailing conditions also generate currents. Whether you are an experienced sea swimmer or relative newcomer, currents can catch you off guard. Local knowledge, being prepared, checking the weather, swimming in patrolled locations and remaining calm are all effective ways of dealing with currents. Should you see a swimmer in difficulty alert the coastguard by dialling 999. You can find the latest updates on beaches patrolled by RNLI lifeguards here.
I’ve often experienced currents in lakes, but was keen to hear and learn from Victoria’s experiences of the sea:
“I swim along the coast and hug the shoreline if I’m in the water on my own (e.g. my husband is on the beach watching). This is the safest way to swim as it means you can always see, and hopefully reach, the shore if you need to. Additionally, should you come into danger people on the shore can raise the alarm. I will occasionally venture away from shore but only if my husband is out in his kayak and can paddle alongside me so that I have the reassurance of being rescued if I ever need it.
The sea is wonderful, but there are also many hazards like rip currents or changeable weather conditions that can turn things dangerous quite quickly. Rip currents are one of the biggest causes of accidental drowning, and no matter how strong your swimming is, we can all easily get into difficulty in one. If you do find yourself in a rip current, first and foremost don’t panic or try to swim against the force; you will just end up exhausting yourself – float on your back whilst attempting to alert help on the shore and take a few seconds to assess your situation. If the water is too deep for you to walk to shore, swim across the direction of the current, parallel to shore until you break free of it and use any breaking waves to help move you closer to the beach – it may seem counter-intuitive to swim along the coast when you get caught in a rip current but this is the easiest and safest way to get yourself out of trouble.”
Planning your entry and exit is also important. Whilst it might seem obvious that you can walk into the sea, you need to be mindful to submerged rocks and structures in the water like Groynes that might might make your entry or exit more difficult. Also remembering where you got in and where you left your stuff is useful to avoid a lengthy walk up the beach. I either leave my boyfriend or a brightly coloured towel on the beach. Even when using tidal pools at the moment planning your entry/exit is essential to minimise contact with others and touch points.
Be aware of your ability:
Open water swimming is very different to pool swimming, its colder, murkier and you’re subject to the currents and weather conditions. In the sea, the movement of water can also stir up sediment and salt water in your eyes or mouth isn’t the most pleasant. You need a decent level of endurance, especially in the sea, and you will most likely find that you tire quicker. When sea swimming only go out of your depth if you feel confident and safe to do so. Assess how you feel in the water and do not swim until exhaustion.
Swimming in the sea involves sharing the space with a variety of other water users including surfers, jet skis, boats, SUPs and other swimmers. It is vital to make yourself visible to other watercraft, especially Jet Skis to avoid collisions, but also to people on the shore should you get into difficulty. Similarly, make sure you sight regularly (looking ahead and around at your surroundings) to avoid swimming into dangerous situations.
A brightly coloured swim hat and tow float or buoyancy bag are two of Victoria’s essential items:
“I think it’s fair to say that most of us look terrible in a swim hat, but I will always have a bright one on, preferably a neon colour or bright primary colour as it means I am easily visible in the water which is so important when there are watercraft, fishermen and other hazards that need to be aware of you. I also never sea swim without my Zone 3 Buoy Bag – not only is this great for holding my valuables whilst I swim, it also means I am easily seen when in the water and it serves as something for me to hold onto if I need to have a momentary rest. If you only take one thing away from reading this, it should be to invest in a buoy bag. Whilst it may seem like an unnecessary faff to have around your waist, it could end up saving your life.”
I’m also a big fan of whistles, you can attach a pealess whistle (whistle without a ball in) to your wetsuit, tow float or buoy bag. Three sharp blows on this can get the attention of a lifeguard or passers by.
Additionally when using a buoy bag, Tupperware containers are great for keeping essential valuables dry when swimming. Use ones with a strong lid, decent seal and the clip fastenings on each side. You can then pop your valuables inside the waterproof section of the buoy bag and have the extra piece of mind that everything remains remarkably dry and safe. This also means you don’t have to leave valuables on the beach.
Avoid Swimming Alone
This is a tricky one at the moment given the current social distancing rules, however swimming in company is the safest way to navigate the sea, or any open water swimming location. This might mean a socially distanced swim partner in the water with you, or in Victoria’s case someone on a kayak. If you can’t find someone to swim with you, bring a partner or household member to sit on the beach and as Victoria outlines above swim close to the shore within sight. Man made tidal pools are also a safe way to enjoy the sea without the worry of currents or watercraft, and there are usually a few users at any time.
If you’re coming to open water swimming from the pool then one of the most notable contrasts is the temperature. Open water swimming is much cooler than that lovely heated pool! However, there are also differences between water bodies when open water swimming. Due to their increased residence time lakes tend to heat up quicker than the sea, and are easily influenced by weather conditions e.g. weeks of good weather can create an almost balmy surface layer in lakes and other inland water bodies. Contrastingly, the sea tends to warm up more slowly than the air or land and temperature increases will lag behind seasonality. Whilst the sea might look enticing on a hot day in mid June the temperature is still likely to be around the mid-teens in degrees Celsius. In the UK the sea tends to be warmest in July into September.
So does this mean you’ll need a wetsuit?
“The simple answer is no, you can swim in just your swimsuit if you fancy it especially as the water temperature is quite warm at the moment.” Although I would add that for men wearing baggy swim shorts can increase drag, particularly if you do find yourself swimming against the tide.
However, Victoria’s recommendation is to invest in a wetsuit: “Not only do wetsuits keep you warm meaning you can spend longer in the water, they also provide you with a significant amount of buoyancy. This is useful if you become tired or are new to sea swimming as you can just roll onto your back and float in the water. Wetsuits also give you added protection from sea creatures like jelly fish. On the whole, jelly fish in the UK are not dangerous, so don’t be afraid of them, but be wary that they may still give you a little sting if you swim into one.”
Finding a wetsuit that fits comfortably is also important. Here are Victoria’s top tips:
- You should prioritise fit in the torso and shoulder area when making your choice; you need to have enough room in the shoulders to be able to rotate your arms when swimming, but not so much room that your wetsuit fills up with water as soon as you put your shoulders under the water.
- Don’t be afraid to cut the legs by about an inch or two – this makes it easier to get on and off and means you don’t have to worry if your wetsuit is too long (I’ve also cut the arms before for the same reason), in fact I think I have cut every single wetsuit I’ve ever owned in order to get a perfect fit.
- Consider buying neoprene socks – particularly if you swim on a pebbled beach as these will cushion your feet as you walk into the water and take away any discomfort, they also keep your toes nice and toasty and take away that initial chill that you otherwise get when stepping in the sea.
I’m a Zone3 ambassador (AD) and have always used their wetsuits, you can get 15% off full priced items on their website by following this link. Also make sure you check out their outlet for some ex-demo bargains.
Additionally, make sure you have warm, dry clothes for exiting the water, the coast can often be windy and with the sea a little chillier it may take longer to warm up.
Learn your flags:
Look for any flags on display and learn what they mean. Different flags can be displayed at different points on the beach. In addition flags and buoys may mark safe swim/no swimming zones. Further to these, observe/familiarise yourself with additional signage such as where first aid points are, rocky outcrops or strong currents. The most common flags are:
- A Red over Yellow flag indicates that a lifeguard is on duty and that you are in a safe swim zone.
- A green flag indicates calm and safe swimming conditions
- A solid red flag indicates no swimming. And this means NO SWIMMING. This can change daily with the conditions, so if you arrive at the beach and see a red flag sadly that means there will be no swim session at that moment in time. Whilst the water may look safe a red flag could be an indication of rip currents or other hazards.
- A solid yellow flag means a moderate hazard, if this flag is displayed I would urge weaker swimmers or those not confident/familiar/comfortable with sea swimming to sit this one out.
- A purple flag indicates hazardous marine life, for example jellyfish.
- A quartered black and white flag indicates an area that is not safe for swimmers, this is most likely a space for surfers or non-powered water craft.
Be a steward of the sea
Enjoy your swim, and leave nothing but footprints in the sand. Make sure you take home any rubbish and help keep the beaches clean and pleasant places for people and wildlife. Additionally whilst many beaches and coastal towns face increasing pressures during the easing of lockdown please be mindful to others, especially residents. Our beaches are experiencing very busy periods at the moment and whilst we can travel to participate in exercise please be responsible. In the past, I’ve found that the beaches are quietest early on, or on calm but overcast days.
Don’t drink and swim (and obviously I don’t mean water!)
Alcohol and swimming do not mix. If your day at the beach has involved a few alcoholic bevvies then it is safest not to swim. Alcohol can impair your ability, reduce co-ordination, give you a false sense of confidence, alter how your body reacts to, and regulates against the temperature of the water and can lead you to misjudge the dangers around you. Don’t swim, or enter the water, under the influence of alcohol.
Embrace the experience
Victoria’s final piece of advice relates to embracing the experience, enjoying your time in the water safely and practicing. “Sea swimming can be flat, calm, and like a sheet of glass…or it can be wavy, windy, and a little more messy. It can be a challenge to put your head in the water and breathe in the same way as you would in a pool but practice makes perfect here. You may also struggle to maintain front crawl on your first attempt in the sea; my recommendation would be to start of by attempting 10 strokes of front crawl and then have a few seconds recovery in breast stroke and repeat – gradually you can increase the amount of time in front crawl until you feel comfortable in the water. Front crawl really is the most efficient stroke in the sea so this is worth chipping away at even if you find it impossible at first.
Swimming in the sea is quite possibly the most restorative and invigorating activity you can do, you also feel a real sense of achievement after a sea swim as you are so exposed to the elements. But the sea is also wildly powerful and it’s important to respect that and understand that by taking some time to prepare for your swim appropriately, you are giving yourself the best opportunity to have a successful and fun time out in the water.”
Thanks for reading and I hope our shared knowledge and experience helps make your sea swimming experience safe and enjoyable. Always follow local instructions, be mindful or hazards and keep up to date with advice from the RNLI.
Growing up on the coast Victoria has had a longstanding respect for the sea. She swam competitively as a child and then became a leisurely holiday swimmer until her mid-20s when she decided to take up triathlon. Whilst her love of triathlon has had many highs and lows; one thing that has remained constant throughout this time is her love for being in the sea or out on the water. In addition to being a regular sea swimmer (twice a week from late Spring onwards, although a little more at the moment) Victoria is a qualified sailor and powerboat instructor and is one of the safety boat lead drivers at her local sailing club.
In addition to this, Victoria is a keen runner and member of the ASICS FrontRunner UK team and a very good friend of mine- in fact she re-introduced me to the joys of sea swimming. You can catch up with her on Instagram @VictoriaRunsWild