A question every open water swimmer should ask themselves before starting the activity: is Open Water Swimming dangerous? Most experienced swimmers will tell you that it is not. In this article, we will list the potential dangers you could be faced with in open water. Then we will talk about each of them and see how dangerous they can be. We will also talk about the solutions you can use to make your swim safer.
First, let’s make a list of the 10 potential dangers in open water:
- Water temperature
- Floating objects
- Sharks and Jellyfish
- Water quality
Now let’s talk about each of the potential dangers and how we can avoid them
It will really depend on where you swim. Ocean waves are usually more powerful and potentially more dangerous than in the sea or lakes. Most waves are harmless but some are dangerous.
The most dangerous kind of wave is the shorebreak. Like explained on HIOceanSafety.com “Shorebreak is an unpredictable and dangerous ocean condition when waves break directly onshore. Shorebreak can happen when there is a rapid transition from deep to shallow water. Its powerful energy can knock anyone in the water off of their feet and drive them into hard sand or sharp rocks and coral on the ocean floor, especially in shallow water. This can cause serious injury to the head, neck and spinal cord, as well as to the extremities”.
Read more of their article here.
Once again, it will all depend on where you are swimming. Some rivers look like huge lakes, but they are still rivers with a stream you need to be aware of. Most currents won’t affect strong swimmers and are not considered dangerous.
The most dangerous is the rip current. It is dangerous especially if you don’t know how it works. Basically this current runs perpendicularly to the shore and can strongly take swimmers away to the open. The danger is when the swimmer tries to return to the beach following the same path. Swimming against this type of current is pretty much impossible, even for a strong swimmer. The current can be so strong and fast that the swimmer will end up far away in no time. Panic is his worst enemy. As dangerous as this current can be, there is a way to get out.
To get out of a rip current, the solution is to swim parallel to the beach. Once you are no longer in the rip current, the waves will help you get back to the beach.
Once again, learning about the place where you are swimming is the best way to prevent danger. When there is a lifeguard, ask about potential currents or dangers. If you are intimidated, find yourself a good swimming partner to accompany you.
3. Water temperature
Winter water temperatures often scare swimmers. But is cold water really a danger? And at what temperature is the water cold? This is all going to depend on how you are acclimatized. If you are used to swimming in a 29°C (84°F), you will likely feel cold in a 20°C (68°F) water. Which is not the case for someone already acclimatized to those temperatures.
The list of benefits of swimming in cold water is longer than the list of risks. Here we are only going to develop the potential risks and danger. Some risks can be: the cold water shock which produces a gasp response as well as rapid breathing. It could also cause attacks for the asthmatics. Cold water urticaria will also affect some swimmers, it is a skin reaction to cold that appears after cold exposure, affecting the skin with reddish itchy welts (hives).
The biggest risk with cold water is hypothermia. As soon as your body is exposed to cool temperatures, it starts cooling down. The two important factors to keep in mind are time and temperature. The longer you spend time in cold water, the higher the risk of hypothermia.
I personally often get symptoms of mild hypothermia during my winter swims. Those symptoms are: uncontrollable shivering, cold pale skin, blue lips, fumbling fingers, tiredness, slurred speech. This is something I take seriously. I know myself and where my own limits are.
Severe hypothermia is a serious medical emergency, here are the symptoms:
- Absence of shivering
- Dilated pupils
- Loss of consciousness
To avoid hypothermia, you should adapt to the situation. Take the time to acclimatize, this can take years. Here are a few tips:
- Get in the water slowly and listen to your body
- Consider wearing a wetsuit
- Swim closer to the shore line, follow the beach
- Swim in good company
- Increase the duration of your swim slowly
This is often a fear that keeps swimmers away from trying open water. But it is not only the openness that scares beginners. Not being able to see the bottom, or conversely a feeling of vertigo when being able to see the depth.
Technically the depth, the colour or the vastness of the water are not dangerous. But as irrational those fear can be, there is one danger: panic. Indeed, panic is one of the major causes of drowning.
Be aware of your fear and adapt. It can take a bit of time to get used to the environment. At first, stay close to the shore until you are comfortable and move away slowly. In case you start panicking, get on your back and relax. Try to slow down your breathing until you feel better.
Open water swimmers love outdoors and its quietness. But we aren’t the only ones on the water and chances are great to meet other water users. You will likely meet boaters and fishermen, jet skis, wind and kitesurfers, paddlers and other swimmers.
The biggest danger with motorboats is their propeller which can literally tear you apart. The other danger is collision. If getting hit by another swimmer can be a bit painful, getting hit by a boat or even surfboard can knock you out.
I’ve already talked about the need to be seen in my previous post “the essentials of Open Water Swimming equipment“. The best way to avoid collision is to be seen from far away. It is easy for a paddleboarder to see and avoid us in time. Motorboats are much faster, we are just a small dot in the water to them.
A very bright open water swimming buoy will help you get seen from far by all people on the water. Sighting is also important, you need to be aware at all time of what is around you.
6. Floating Objects
Storms take objects down rivers which will end up in the lake or sea. Most common objects are wood logs but can sometimes be of plastic or metal like pieces of a broken boat for example.
Once again, the danger with floating objects is collision and getting knocked out. However, I haven’t heard of anyone getting knocked out by a floating object. But the swimmers who have hit a bigger object and hurt themselves thought it is possible.
Unless you lift your head all the time, it is very hard for a swimmer to spot anything floating at the surface. The best solution to this hazard is to swim with a buddy. The chance is small to hit a big floating object. It is even smaller that two people get hit. Kayakers and other paddlers also have a better sight of what is at the surface of the water. They are an excellent swimmer’s company.
Avoid going for a swim just after a storm, give the time to floating objects to wash up to the shore.
Mountain climbers like to say that when you arrive to the top, you are only half way. Meaning, do not forget you have to come back, and it will not be easier. The good thing with water is that there is no uphill.
The biggest danger is to overestimate your capacities. This, in combination with some factors like currents, wind or water temperature can be a potential danger. It is very easy to not be aware we are swimming with the current. It is only when you turn around and have to swim against that current that you realize the struggle.
Before you go for a big swim, train yourself by increasing the distance gradually. Stay close to the safer shore in case you need to rest or stop.
Learn to read the water. My trick to spot a current is to look at an anchored buoy. If the buoy is just above the anchor, there is no current. If the buoy is further away from the anchor, it gives you the indication of what direction the current is going. You can also stop swimming and look where you are compared to a rock or a fixed point on the shore. If after a minute you have not moved, there is most likely no current.
8. Sharks and jellyfish
You might wonder why I have put them in the same category. Most people think that sharks are a real danger. But they forget there is a much bigger chance to encounter a jellyfish than a shark.
First, not all sharks are dangerous. In fact, most of them are harmless and quite cute. I used to swim regularly in Sydney Australia beaches. Everyone knows there are a lot of bull sharks on the coasts of Sydney. They are known to be some of the most dangerous after the big white shark. Yet, I have never seen one. I know someone who faced one, the shark saw him and left. I do not know anybody who was attacked. Not saying it can not happen, but is seems like the chances to encounter one are very small.
Jellyfish do not have big teeth. They come in a wide variety of shapes and sizes, and are characterized by their bell and their dangling tentacles. If they do not seek out to attack humans, you might come in contact with them. Their defence mechanism is the sting, which is not usually fatal to humans. It can cause pain, skin rashes, fever, muscle cramps and in some cases an allergic reaction.
Some jellyfish species are more dangerous than others. In Northern Queensland in Australia, some beaches have a netted swimming area that prevents jellyfish to come in. Find out about the most dangerous species in this article.
In some regions, you might also encounter the Portuguese Man-o’-War (Physalia physalis) also known as Bluebottle. This is not a jellyfish, even if it resembles one. They are floating colonies including different animals, and they also sting. Its sting can be very painful and can lead to symptoms such as chills, fever, nausea, vomiting and shock.
For sharks, avoid swimming between sunset and sunrise. It is the time Sharks are the most active and looking for prey. One other tip is to swim in group as sharks most often attack lone individuals. Also avoid shiny jewellery and bright colours, the shark could confuse them with fish.
If you are scared of sharks no matter what, try to learn more about them. You will soon realize they are not as terrifying as Hollywood has tried to make us believe. Follow the inspiring “shark whisperer” Cristina Zenato, she rescues them by taking fishing hooks out of their mouth.
To avoid jellyfish sting, the best solution is to cover your skin. Wearing a wetsuit or a Lycra suit protects you from being in contact with the tentacles.
If you do get stung by a jellyfish, rinse it with salt water or vinegar and try to pluck away any tentacles that are still on the skin. Read the full tips here.
Due to the cooling effect of the water, it is easy to forget we are fully exposed to the sun while swimming. You are in fact more exposed than while doing any other type of activity. By the fact you are wearing fewer clothes. Also, by the fact that it is easier to practice the activity of swimming during the sun peak hours.
A prolonged time directly exposed to the sun during peak hours can lead to severe sunburn. Even for an acclimatized skin, the duration and the chosen time of exposure can be dangerous for your skin and potentially lead to skin cancer.
The best protection for your skin is to avoid being exposed between 10am and 4pm. And if there is no other option, use a wetsuit or Lycra suit to protect your skin from UV rays.
For areas like your face or hands, choose a broad spectrum sunscreen that is harmless for you and the environment. You are in the nature after all, and the last thing you want is to harm it. Keep in mind that those sunscreens are not the best in the water, you need to reapply often.
To know more about choosing a safe for the environment sunscreen.
10. Water quality
We do not often talk about this potential danger. Most swimming areas, on lakes or sea beaches, have their water tested regularly. And if the majority of the time the water is of good quality, on some occasion the water might have been contaminated. This can happen after a storm or a flood when the flooded rivers bring soiled water to the lake or the sea.
High levels of bacteria and other chemicals can cause gastrointestinal illness.
Check the results of water testing, they are usually posted at the entrance of the swimming area.
A funny colour, a funny smell or a funny taste of the water might indicate it is not a good day for a swim.
The zero risk never exists. But if you are an informed swimmer and follow some precautions, you minimize the danger while swimming in open water. Most of the advices are easy to follow. Remember to take it slow and gradually get out of your comfort zone, which will expand with time anyway.
And you, what do you think? Is Open Water Swimming dangerous?