Everybody is looking forward to an exciting summer full of wild sea swimming. These important seven points will help us all to enjoy our safest possible swims.
Helped by the Milford Skins Swimmers, Angus explains the three main safety points
Do your homework before you decide to go to the beach. Look at the wind direction and strength and make a note of the state of the tide and the swell, as well as the water temperature. A gentle offshore breeze is ideal. If not sure about tidal currents, try to go either at low or high tide, not when the tidal current is in full flow. Take particular care during spring tides, which happen every two weeks during the three or four days following a full and a new moon. Although it is likely that the swimming conditions will be favourable when the wind is light, waves can still be an issue. On exposed coasts there can be powerful waves even when there is no wind at all. Finally, it is worth noting that the sea warms up slower than inland water. The first warm days in spring entice people to the water’s edge, but many will not realise the sea temperature has barely risen since the winter.
Make sure that you have other swimmers nearby. It is always best to swim with other people around even if they are not known to you personally. Not only is it reassuring to be in the water with other swimmers around, should something serious happen there will be help nearby. Most important of all, you will have somebody there to talk to about the conditions and to plan your swims with before you go in - two heads are better than one. If not yet a member, you will find there are local What’s App and Facebook swim buddy groups. If you do not know the area, or are on holiday, contact a local swim guide who can take you out safely. I am often asked to guide visiting swimmers wanting to take their first sea swim with somebody local and experienced.
Make sure that you can be seen. Even if you are just going for a quick dip, it pays to wear a brightly coloured hat so that people can spot you in the water. People often forget that when swimming it is only the top part of the head that is visible, so it is important to make that stand out as much as possible. The other thing you can do is to use a tow float, which is a brightly coloured inflatable bag tethered by a leash to your waist. A tow float increases visibility in the water at least two-fold and it can be used as a handy pillow for a little rest if you are out on a long swim. Some even have a pouch to carry mid-swim treats. My favourite 10k swim treat is Jelly Babies!
Stay near the shore. There is no need to swim right out to sea. The further out you go the more risk you are taking: the tidal currents are stronger; it is further to swim back to the shore; and there tend to be more boats and other craft, such as kite surfers and jet skiers, all of whom travel faster the further from the shore they are. All you need is enough water to swim without grazing your knuckles on the bottom. Occasionally, when swimming in a swell it is more comfortable to swim out behind the breaking surf, but that is about the only time you will ever find it pays to swim out from the beach and even then, you will only need to be at most fifty metres from the beach, so it should be easy to get back to shore. Remember to check for rips if you do intend to swim behind the surf and if there are lifeguards on duty, have a friendly chat with them first to let them know your intentions.
Plan your exit points and do the hard part of the swim first. Swim into any current or wind during the first part of your swim and enjoy the easier swimming on the way back. It is a fool’s paradise to set off downwind or downtide only to find you have an ordeal on your hands when you turn round to come back. Make sure you check where any rip currents are known to form, especially if you are swimming where a river flows into the sea. I always leave my swimming bag near to a beach hut painted brightly in red and yellow stripes. Find your own memorable and easy-to-spot landmark to keep sight of as you swim.
Start slowly. Make a conscious effort to control your breathing for the first couple of minutes while your body gets used to the change in temperature. Long, steady deep breaths are best. Many swimming accidents involve people becoming over excited and getting into the water too fast. Sometimes it is as simple as just slipping over on a rock but it can be more serious than that. Look after people in your group who are less experienced than you are.
At the end of your swim make sure you warm up again. Get those wet things off as soon as possible then put on several layers and a warm hat, even if it is a hot sunny day, and make sure to check on other swimmers who have also just got out. Sipping a hot drink is helpful but be careful not to scald yourself in a hot shower or bath straight after swimming. It is far better to warm up slowly and have a hot bath later when your body has been out of the water a while. Set the car’s aircon to hot and wait a little while before driving back home, especially if you are still shivering. Our favourite way of warming up is to cycle to the beach and then after swimming to pedal vigorously all the way home!
Good luck with your swim plans this summer and make sure you have a marvellous, but also a safe, time in the water.