Monday, 18 May 2015

Dos and Don'ts of Wild Swimming

Wild Swimming is basically swimming outside.  When people think of swimming they think about sanitised chlorine wafted swimming pools, where you know how deep the water is, you know where the edge is, you know (hope) there won't be anything odd floating about, there are lots of other swimmers and a nice friendly qualified lifeguard to make sure that everybody is safe.
The Roman Baths at Bath - from
Swimming in swimming pools is a fairly recent phenomenon.  While the oldest watertight public tank that we know of was built in Pakistan 5000 years ago, and organised swimming and public and social bathing were popular in Greek and Roman culture, public swimming pools didn't come back into regular use until about 150 years ago.  By 1837 there were six man-made indoor swimming pools with diving boards in London, and after swimming races were included in the reborn modern Olympic Games in 1896 the popularity of indoor swimming began to spread.
Chudleigh Community Swimming Pool - from
Today, most regular swimmers will rarely venture away from the security of the man-made pool, with the exception of an occasional paddle in the sea on warm holidays.  They are really missing a trick, as the UK's many wild swimmer will testify.  Whether you opt for endurance swimming, swimming in the sea, in rivers or in lakes the feel of the water is very different to a swimming pool.  It's colder for a start, but then you begin to notice variations in water temperature in and out of the current, in shallow pools or on the edges.  Sea water feels different from river water, some water is soft and silky, while another river might have a grittier feel.  Swimming in the rain has a very different feel to a sunny afternoon, and a night swim is different again.  When you put your feet down are you in soft tickly grasses, sand, pebbles or rocks - and was that a fish that just brushed against your ankle?  As you swim in a river you're part of the wildlife scene, you might see a kingfisher darting over head, keep your distance from that nesting swan, and just float on by as a mother mallard leads her ducklings across the water.  The surface of the water sparkles in the sunlight, waves lap at the shore or the river bank, and leaves rustle overhead.  What could be better than swimming in such an inviting landscape?
wild swimming in Rydal in the Lake District from
Most people are nervous of swimming outdoors, thinking that it must be dangerous.  Stories in the press about drownings can be pretty scary, but of the 381 water related deaths by accident or natural causes in the UK in 2013, eight were in the bath, six were in the swimming pool, 14 were sub-aqua divers, 31 were boating, and one hundred and twenty six were walkers or joggers who fell in the sea, canal or river.  Only fifty five were wild swimmers.  To put this in context, in the same year 1,713 people died on the UK's roads.  When wild swimming though, you don't put your safety in the hands of the swimming pool and their attendants.  It is up to you to choose where to swim, to assess your own capabilities and the risks of your swim, depending on weather conditions, water level and your own ability, and to keep yourself safe.  Here are a few guidelines to get you started:

DO - 

  • always be polite to other water users and landowners.  
  • swim with somebody else - this is particularly important in cold water (officially, UK water is cold year-round).  They could be in the water with you or on shore.  This keeps you safe and makes the swim more fun.
  • wear a wet-suit when the water is cold, and get into the water slowly to allow your body to acclimatise.
  • Until you are used to swimming outside, and understand your body's "getting too cold" signals, don't stray too far from shore.
  • Keep cuts and grazes covered up.
  • Report any obvious signs of pollution to the Environment Agency (and Surfers Against Sewage for coastal areas)
  • wear a bright coloured hat so that other swimmers and boats etc can see you - a tow float can also be useful where there is a lot of boat traffic.
  • Build up your swimming ability, the better you are at swimming indoors, the better you'll be able to manage outdoors where the conditions are very different.

DON'T - 

  • trespass to get to the water.  Use public footpaths or other rights of way
  • stay in too long.  All UK water is classed as "cold" year-round - staying in too long increases your danger of cold incapacitation (you can no longer swim effectively, and may struggle to climb out of the water at the bank).
  • Get in to water that looks murky and unappealing or smells funny.  
  • Swim in privately owned reservoirs unless it's clear that it is allowed
  • swim under the influence of drugs or alcohol - EVER.
For more information on wild swimming in the UK, check out The Outdoor Swimming Society.  Their website gives lots of information on staying safe and where it's okay to swim, as well as including a map showing local wild-swimming spots that have been recommended by users.  It's well worth starting with some of these, as they have been tried and tested and comments on the map can tell you what conditions are like.
Lady Alice Douglas wild swimming in Wales, from

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