Lifeguard Wild Swimming Advice: Picking a safe spot for a dip, hidden dangers, and what to do if you get in trouble
Every summer people flock to local water spots to cool off, with many heading in to take a dip – however, the dangers are often underestimated and sometimes fatal.
According to the RLSS lifeboat charity, July 2021 saw 49 accidental drowning fatalities in the space of just two weeks in the UK.
He explained: “We truly believe that people can be equipped with the right knowledge around water safety, and as a result we won’t need to see the fatalities we currently are seeing with accidental drownings.”
Safe swimming spots
If you do plan on taking a dip this summer, it’s essential to consider your choice of water spot. Some present more dangers than others, and there can be key things to watch out for before you head in.
Pick a place with a lifeguard
First and foremost, you ideally want to pick a place where there is a professional lifeguard on duty, such as a popular beach — the RNLI has a handy tool to help you find your nearest one. Alternatively, you can look for a local lido, most have trained staff on duty.
If you do opt to head to a beach, make sure you pay attention to the flags on display, each has a different meaning and are used to warn of any dangers or signpost where it is safe to swim. Most importantly, if you spot a red flag — do not go in the water.
Other water bodies
While it’s never advised to swim in other waterways such as rivers, quarries, reservoirs or lakes, there are things you should do to increase your safety if you decide to take the plunge.
Firstly, ensure you know how to easily get in and out of the water should you need to. Consider where the best point of exit is and look at the current.
If you’re keen to try wild swimming it’s sensible to take a tow float along with you. This inflatable device won’t impede your swim, but it will ensure you’re visible in the water. This can be helpful as it allows people to spot you, can be used as a buoyancy aid should you tire, and can even be used to aid children if accompanying them into water.
At beaches and other water sources, it’s also important to keep a keen eye out for warning signs. Many will have information displayed highlighting any dangers such as shallow or deep water, strong currents or to avoid swimming altogether.
Spotting hidden dangers
There are many dangers when entering any body of water, but cold water is often the biggest risk, especially even in hot weather, as Lee Heard explains: “We are seeing lots of young people heading to various waterways including quarries and lakes but unfortunately they do not have experience of swimming in these environments. They may feel they are strong swimmers in a warm swimming pool but swimming in open water is a different story entirely and cold water shock becomes a real factor.”
While air temperatures may be high, water temperatures in the UK and Ireland rarely get above 20 degrees. The deeper water gets, the cooler it typically is. Cold water shock can lead to significant changes in breathing, heart rate and blood pressure all of which can affect your ability to swim.
Shallow areas can be particularly dangerous when entering water suddenly by diving or jumping in. Many people don’t consider the depth of the body of water before they enter and often take the plunge without taking due care.
This can be extremely dangerous as, hitting sea, river or lake beds in shallow water can put tremendous force on our bodies, often resulting in life-changing injuries.
It’s important to always assess the depth of water before jumping in. Even in clear water, it can be difficult to determine the depth. Pay particular caution to waterfalls which often have both a very deep area of water and shallow sections.
Currents and tides
Currents are a big hazard when entering water as they can easily pull you away from the shore or even under water.
Rivers often have particularly dangerous currents, but don’t be fooled, lakes and reservoirs can have currents too.
Getting caught up in a current is often serious but Lee has given his tips for what to do if you encounter them: “Currents in the water can be very strong. If you find yourself caught in a current — don’t swim against it — you’ll tire yourself out. Stay calm, swim with the current and call for help.”
For beachgoers, another risk is tides. It’s important to pay attention to the tide time table if you’re planning to head off for a walk along the beach, or to a rocky outcrop. An incoming tide may cut you off, blocking your way back. The tide can come in fast, so it’s best not to take any chances.
Tide tables are often at the beach itself, online or through mobile apps.
Not all hazards are visible in water, and in fact, many of the biggest dangers come from below the water’s surface.
Something that often catches people out is uneven surfaces. It can be hard to tell before entering what the condition of the water bed is like. Again, a particular danger is depth — beds can often suddenly drop off, leading to unexpected dips which can catch swimmers out.
Alongside this, many rivers or lakes can have underwater plants and weeds which can entangle you making swimming more challenging or even causing you to get into difficulty.
This is why it’s especially important to familiarise yourself with where you are swimming, or ideally, stick to guarded water sources.
Activities to avoid
While most activities are fun and safe ways to enjoy the water, there are some practices which should always be avoided.
One common pastime is to dig a sand hole on a beach. While this may seem like a harmless bit of fun to pass time in the sun, these can prove deadly. Holes can easily cave in, trapping those inside them, especially children. Alongside this, if the tide comes in quickly you can become trapped inside and it may be difficult for others to dig you out.
Tombstoning is the practice of jumping vertically into water from a high cliff or building. However, entering water from any height can mean there is a huge amount of force when hitting the water, which can lead to serious injury, or even death.
If you spot caves along the shoreline, don’t be adventurous and try to swim in. While it may seem like fun to explore these natural formations, they can often have strong currents, be hard to swim out of, and changes in the tide can leave you trapped.
Looking out for friends and family
One key element of water safety is looking after one another and being vigilant, especially for parents with young children. If you do plan to swim in unguarded water, always go accompanied so someone can help you if you get into difficulty.
Worryingly, the RLSS found that most parents wouldn’t know how to help a struggling child, as Lee explains: “In our research over 55 per cent of parents said they would not feel confident that their child would know what to do if they fell into open water and this is something we know needs to change and with education this change can happen.”
When relaxing at the weekend or on holiday, it can be easy for parents to become distracted and less vigilant. However, it’s essential to always keep young children within an arm's reach and not let them into water unattended.
If they are old enough, discuss basic water safety with them so they’ll know what to do if they get into trouble. It’s important to remember that a drowning child will often not be able to call for help or move their arms, contrary to popular belief, drowning is often silent and quick. Pay close attention to any children for signs they are struggling such as a titled or lowered head, lack of movement or gasping.
What to do if you or someone you’re with gets into difficulty
If you get into difficulty yourself, always try to swim parallel to the shore, never swim against currents or tides, or if you’re tiring, lay on your back and float.
If someone you’re with gets into difficulty, knowing and remembering the Water Safety Code is vital:
Whenever you are around water you should stop and think to assess your surroundings and look for any dangers.
Stay together when around water and always go with family and friends;
In an emergency call 999 and ask for the Fire and Rescue service when inland and the Coastguard if at the coast.
Finally float to live – if you fall in or become tired, stay calm, float on your back and call for help, or if you see someone in the water, throw something that floats to them and resist the temptation to go in.
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