Cold water swimming advice for beachgoers this Winter

Finisterre Founder Tom Kay (Sea Swimmer and volunteer RNLI helm at St Agnes RNLI Lifeboat Station) cautions sea swimmers to beware.

Wild swimming is one of the most exhilarating and beautiful things you can do. But like all things out in the natural world and particularly the water, you must take your safety seriously. Things on my checklist would be weather conditions, both forecast and how it looks at the edge of the water.

In my experience, it is always rougher and colder than it looks from the shore, so if it looks rough, it is very rough!  In the sea, tides and tidal flows are important. In a river, it’s the current. Sounds obvious, but there won’t be any poolside to hold on to when you’re out there, and psychologically it can feel very different in deep, dark water. If you’re worried about this, swimming parallel to the shore/in your depth is a good idea. And if you need a rest, you can just float on your back – the RNLI actually recommend this. 

Going with a buddy is also a good idea and fun as well. And, of course, the right equipment and gear for the job, both when swimming and when you get out of the water. And above all, enjoy it!

Safety precautions: 

  1. Speak to a healthcare professional – if it’s your first-time open water swimming or cold water dipping, it is crucial to consult a healthcare professional to discuss the potential dangers of cold water immersion and to ensure you are medically fit. 
  2. Choose a lifeguarded beach at the coast – look for the red and yellow flags and swim between them. If there’s no lifeguard cover, make sure you know where you can enter and exit the water, be aware of your location and any hazards in the area, check the tide times before entering the water and be aware of the currents.
  3. Check the current – Before getting into the water, check the water’s flow first. You can throw in a stick or branch – if it floats off faster than you can swim, you won’t be able to beat the current when returning upstream. 
  4. Learn how to spot rip currents and what to do if caught in one – do not try to swim against it. If you can stand, try to wade rather than swim. Swim parallel to the shore until free of the rip, and then head for shore. Raise your hand and shout for help if needed.
  5. Be aware of your surroundings – note potential hazards such as rocks, submerged branches, or strong currents. Some of the biggest dangers are below the water’s surface. Unexpected dips or drop-offs can catch swimmers off guard.  Plants and weeds in rivers and lakes can entangle you and make swimming difficult, too, so it’s always good to familiarise yourself with where you’re swimming and try to stick to guarded water sources. 
  6. Have the right equipment – wearing a wetsuit for warmth and buoyancy when wild swimming is always recommended. A brightly coloured swimming hat to be visible in the water and a tow float for extra buoyancy, if needed, is always a must. 
  7. Always carry a means of calling for help – take your mobile phone in a waterproof pouch and a whistle. You can still try calling 999 or 112 and ask for the coastguard, even with no phone signal. Your phone will try to connect to any other network available. 
  8. Acclimatise your body to avoid cold water shock – be aware of the air and water temperature, as the colder it is, the quicker your body will cool down. Take time to slowly enter the water and acclimatise, and avoid jumping or diving straight in to prevent cold water shock. Splash the cold water on your neck and face, and don’t hold your breath for an extended time. Remember that cold water immersion, especially entering water under 15°C, can seriously impact your ability to breathe and move, so stay within your depths and swim parallel to the shore. Keep an eye on your exit point to ensure you can return to it, as the wind can push you off course.
  9. Avoid jumping in – entering shallow water suddenly by diving or jumping in can be extremely dangerous, even for the most experienced tombstoners. Hitting the sea, river or lake beds can cause tremendous force on our bodies, resulting in life-changing injuries. Always assess the water’s depth before lowering yourself in, even in clear water, as it can be challenging to determine the depth. Pay particular caution to waterfalls, which often have both deep areas of water and shallow sections.
  10. Try not to panic – if you get into cold water too quickly or fall in unexpectedly, fight your instinct to swim. Instead, relax, and float on your back until you can control your breathing and the shock passes. Then you can call or signal for help. 
  11. Swim with someone else – this is a simple way of increasing safety, as you can look out for each other and assist if one swimmer has difficulties. If you prefer to swim alone, it’s always advisable to let someone know where you’re going and stick to recognised spots with good access. 

Other things to consider: 

  1. Be aware of other water users, such as anglers, boaters, and wildlife. Give them space and try not to disturb them.
  2. Respect the land and the people who live nearby. Park sensibly, take away any rubbish and avoid making excessive noise.
  3. Be polite and courteous, even if others are not. Show your gratitude for being able to swim there and be willing to help with any issues.
  4. Leave no trace. Make sure to leave a place in the same state (or better than) you found it in. This means taking away any rubbish and avoiding damaging the environment.
  5. Respect the habitats and wildlife. Remember that you are a guest in their home. Avoid trampling vegetation, moving rocks, and disturbing wildlife populations.
  6. Be aware of the local wildlife populations. Seals can become territorial during mating and breeding seasons, and nesting birds should be avoided during the spring. Avoid otter sites and fish spawning grounds as well.
  7. Enjoy the chance to be completely immersed in nature. Pass by in silence, disturb nothing, and leave only ripples behind you.

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