'Safety through information not dictation'
By Rob Fryer

Beware - the water is not cold!
A common prominent feature in publications advising on water safety are warnings of the dangers posed by immersion in inland waters which, according to some:
   - remain extremely cold even on a hot day
   - never warm up, even in summer
   - are surprisingly cold only a few inches below the surface
   - especially cold in deep lakes
   - may feel comfortable in the shallows but becomes extremely
cold in the centre of lakes and more.
Whereas some inland water temperatures, rivers in particular, can fall below 15C during the summer, the majority of lowland inland waters in the UK are at between 15C (‘a bit chilly’) and 20C+ (‘lovely and warm’) - sometimes from as early as May. Moreover, once heated by the sun, lakes and slow flowing rivers can stay surprisingly warm days after the weather has turned cloudy.
Having said that, not only is there an undeniable problem with feeling cold in the water - it is one which swimmers must be alerted to and take note of. Although water temperature is a major contributor, the problem is not the temperature per se. Click here to find out what are the real, hidden dangers and how the inclusion of inaccurate information and sweeping statements in safety advice, can cost lives. [Picture from Wild Swimming by Daniel Start]
Is the water clean?
Water contaminants fall into two main categories:
Chemical - In this respect, UK's rivers and lakes are the cleanest they've been in modern times. The Environment Agency (EA) samples about 7000 river and canal sites 12 times a year to test their chemistry and nutrients for any sign of pollutants. The information is readily available on their website
Bacteriological - Most popular sea bathing sites and nine inland bathing sites are regularly tested to European Bathing Water Directive standards. Information is available on the EA website during the bathing season.
Rivers, lakes and canals can become polluted by runoff water from farmland contaminated by livestock manure, road water runoff in urban areas and discharges from storm water drainage systems where sewers have been illegally connected into them. Although the EA includes Biological Tests in the river and canal program these are not aimed at identifying the occurrence of disease-causing micro-organisms. The responsibility for checking these falls on the Local Authority Environmental Health departments. However, tests are not being carried out regularly at all inland water bathing sites.
Our advice - Whereas you can never be sure that any water you swim in is free of harmful micro-organisms you can take simple precautions to avoid taking unnecessary risks:
  • Go to traditional bathing sites and talk to the locals. Regularly contaminated waters soon get a bad name and avoided by the locals.
  • Keep clear of water which does not look inviting e.g. stagnant, dirty, smelly, covered in algae, containing dead vegetation or fish etc.
  • Cover up cuts and avoid swallowing the water
  • The very young, the elderly and those in general poor health should take extra care
  • Find out about sewage water treatment plants upstream. These are of various grades - most are being converted to level three, which use UV to produce biologically pure water, but too many are still grade 2.
Daniel Start, the author of "Wild Swimming" suggests that in drought situations, in lowland rivers in particular, swimmers should not put their head below water, cover up cuts and only do breaststroke. Further information on Blue-green algae and on Weil's disease can be found here...

Wild swimming is more dangerous than swimming in a life-guarded indoor pool, but it is only reckless if undertaken recklessly. There are many more hazards in the wild. You need to be aware of them. Awareness of the risks involved will help you to reduce your exposure to them. You could think of it as carrying out your own personal risk assessment. Here we intend to help you do this.

Much is made in the media and by so-called water safety experts of how the water “never warms up in the UK” and how this exposes you to the risk of cold shock, hypothermia, cramp and heart attack. No doubt all this is true, but considering that so many people, often not acclimatised to cold water, jump into icy water on New Year’s Day, and survive, leads me to question how common these problems are. Drowning reports often read that the swimmer “got into difficulties” but they fail to explain exactly why. For healthy swimmers the main risk is, indeed, from gradual chilling. This can take place on a hot day when the water feels nice and refreshing. A novice may enter the water at say 15°C (60°F) and, after few minutes of feeling uncomfortable, would find the swim quite pleasant. He is a competent swimmer and goes on to attempt to swim across a river or lake. Half way across he starts feeling cold again. He feels that the time has come to get out but the shore is far away. His body continues to lose heat and his muscles slow. Swimming becomes increasingly difficult. i.e. He is “in difficulties” and sadly may soon drown. Research carried out by Portsmouth University and the Swedish National Defence Research Establishment, published in the Lancet in 1999, confirms that drownings associated with cold water are usually caused by swimming impairment. Although at water temperatures of 20C and above, often experienced in open water during the summer, the risk diminishes, our advice is: wear a wetsuit, swim parallel to the shore and know your limitations.

One swimming aid you may consider is a sleeveless wetsuit jacket. It provides significant buoyancy, makes swimming in cold water more comfortable, is easy to put on and does not restrict arm movements . Obtainable mainly from shops specialising in wind-surfing equipment. We paid about £35 for the one shown here. Click here to enlarge the picture

When I was taught to swim (in a river) 60ºF was the signal for the swimming season to commence. Once the season had started it continued till the end of the summer term regardless of the temperature. If you have not swum in the wild before, you too could use 60ºF (15½ºC) as your minimum starting temperature. Alternatively you could wait for 3 hot days in a row and try the water on the third day. When acclimatised to cold water, I find that at 65º & over I can swim for long periods without chilling & the water feels quite pleasant; between 60º & 65º I chill if I stop swimming, while below 60º & certainly below 55º the water feels cold & my time in it is limited. My home river the Frome, along with many English rivers, seldom tops 70ºF (21ºC), but some rivers frequently achieve this and along with a number of lakes sometimes top 75º. Together with the sun this feels pleasantly warm & compares very favourably with the 85º of heated indoor pools where the jolly sun is not invited. However water needs to be below 70º if you want to achieve that exhilarating feeling when you come out. Above 70º the water begins to lose its “tang” and even softies enjoy it. Below 53ºF /11½ºC the water has quite a bite to it, and your limbs soon start going into slow motion, so get out well before they go on strike! I reckon on wearing a wet suit below 53ºF/11½C unless I am only going in for just a very short dip.

For just around £5 you can have your own rescue line. It is made of a 4-5 litre plastic can with a handle, 20 metres of rope and some Velcro. Click here for details.

Many people hold their nose when jumping in. This prevents cold water rushing up your nose & cooling your brain (which can be a cause of cold shock). You can of course reduce the effect of the cold and the risk of drowning by wearing a wet suit or perhaps just a wet suit top or a “shortie”. Wet suits come in three grades from 3 to 5mm. 5mm is the winter grade & my choice for wild swimming. I usually have a wet suit handy. It gives me quite a bit of extra buoyancy as well as insulating me from the cold which drains away my strength. By using a wet-suit top I am less limited by the temperature & I can enjoy more swims in more places for more days in the year; I don’t tire so quickly & I am safer. Wet suits are great for safety. Why not have one handy? They are great for kids too.

Tahir Parker, a professional lifesaving and lifeguarding trainer is keen to explore the possibility of establishing a voluntary lifeguard system for open water. Tahir told us: 'Many people enjoy swimming and it has been sad to see that opportunities to participate are being removed for various reasons. It is appalling to see communities having their facilities stolen from them due to bureaucracy and my aim is to reinstate these stolen opportunities. One way of achieving this will be through the swimming community playing an active part in looking after their own safety. I propose to train volunteer lifeguards both at an informal level and to formal qualifications. I hope that these will be provided free of charge. In return the candidates will volunteer their services as a lifeguards. .Volunteers will benefit from continued use of local facilities, greater safety awareness and possibly some paid employment. I hope that we can develop a dedicated service which all involved will benefit from.'
Tahir who lives in London, travels all over the country in connection with his work so geographic distance need not be a problem. This is a great idea which we must all support. Interested? Please email Tahir at TPJ102@aol.com

Interested in relevant water safety advice? You will find the US Red Cross Swimming Safety Guide interesting. Note that the 'Killer Cold Water' (if you care to believe it) is missing. However, the danger of swimming under the influence of alcohol (often ignored here) is addressed.

A new UK site devoted to the (sensible) promotion of safety in watersports has been recently launched (spring 2008). The site contains over 80 articles all written by a team of experts. Around 3 new articles will be added each month.
click here
  to access the Safe Watersports website