Open Water Swimming – Discover how to keep safe whilst enjoying your swimming

Open Water Swimming in lakes, rivers and at the coast has really taken off in the last few years  (particularly during the last year and in lockdown) and it is one of the largest growing sports in the UK. Swimmers tell us that it can significantly boost their mental wellbeing, fitness levels, mood, it’s highly invigorating, improves circulation and immune systems.

A couple of short sessions a week can help make you content and calm in other words releasing endorphins in your brain.  One open water swimmer suggested to us that swimming just half an hour per week can also help to guard her against heart disease.

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So, whilst we have explored briefly the physical health and well being advantages of open water swimming, we now turn to the safety aspects. Swimming in a conventional swimming pool has the distinct advantage of being heated to a reasonable temperature, having patrolling lifeguards available to help out those who get into difficulty and not suffer from outdoor climatic conditions such as tides, weather and swell. Therefore moving to open water swimming is a whole different ball game and doesn’t have the luxury of the indoor pool conditions.

Professor Mike Tipton

Professor Mike Tipton from Portsmouth Universities  Extreme Environments Laboratory research suggests that sea temperatures even on the relatively warm South Coast of England don’t tend to rise past 15 degrees until July.  In many parts of Scotland and Northern Ireland, surface sea temperatures usually stay under 15°C throughout the year. So, this is a massive consideration when taking part in open water swimming, which cannot be underestimated.

Some swimmers like their specially designed swimming wetsuit that will keep them warm, help with buoyancy and allow them to use their natural stroke unhindered. Whilst others enjoy the more traditional method of a standard swim suit, giving themselves time to acclimatise to the water

RNLI and Swim England Top Tips to help keep you safe 

  • If you are just starting out on your open water swimming adventure then it’s highly recommended to perfect your technique in a swimming pool before you hit the open water. Local swimming pools run  improver swimming lessons. Learning how to ‘float to live’ is definitely a very important technique to practise as you’ll know what to do in an emergency situation if you get into difficulty

  • Join an organised swimming club. There are a multitude of Facebook groups as well as social groups and swimming clubs across the country. Local conditions such as tides, rip currents and winds can change very quickly. Inaddition they will be able to pass on tips about local hazards. If you are unable to find a club, you be able to find a dedicated open water swimming venue. Which are dotted across the country or alternatively patrolled sections of beach that offer the reassurance of a lifeguard watching out for you.

  • If you are unable to swim in a lifeguard patrolled area, ensure you always swim with a buddy and let your family and or friends know what time to expect you back
  • Take advantage of the open water venues offer induction and training sessions for those new to the sport
  • Plan your swim before you leave and take into account currents and tides. When trying to find a location to swim it’s a good idea to find other open water swimmers from the area

  • Enter the water slowly and let your body acclimatise, getting into cooler water too quickly can result in reduced blood flow to your limbs and an automatic increase in your breathing rate. This could result in ‘cold water shock’. More information on cold water shock
  • Jumping into water may seem like a good idea at the time, but you risk cold water shock and hitting objects under the surface by not getting in gradually.
  • Being visible is critically important in open water when there are other water users. A brightly coloured hat is essential
  • Purchasing a diver’s Surface Marker Buoy (SMB) or other inflatable tow float, which can be used as a rescue float is also a very good idea. This will alert other water craft/users that someone is swimming.  You could also attach a waterproof VHF radio or stow a mobile phone in a waterproof pouch onto the float so that you can use to call for help if you get into difficulty. Some National Coastwatch Units loan out the Surface Marker Buoys for a small donation.

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  • Some swimmers are starting to use the SafeTrx App, registering themselves as the craft. More information on SafeTrx
  • Start with short swims and increase the length of your swims over time as you become more experienced and tolerant of conditions.
Andy Mills (pictured left) alongside members of the Walpole Bay New Years Day Swim 2018
  • You should end your swim if you start to get cold or you feel yourself tiring, both signs that your core temperature could be dropping. Having warm clothes waiting for you on shore is a great idea as you will get colder once you exit the water as blood returns to your cooler extremities. A nice cup of hot chocolate or tea at the end of a swim is a fabulous idea, but avoid alcohol as this will cause you to lose heat.

Useful links

Kent Sea Swimmers

Treat water with respect

Professor Mike Tipton

National Coastwatch

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Royal Life Saving Society


Swim England

Professor Tipton – Portsmouth University