Top tips on how to safely swim in open water such as the sea, rivers and reservoirs this summer

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 If you do get in to difficulty in water then the key message to remember is float to live

When the temperature heats up, the instinct for many people is to want to cool down - and a quick and easy way to do this is to go swimming.

It’s not just swimming pools where people seek out water either, as the environment offers many open water options - from the sea and streams and rivers and reservoirs. But open water swimming can be dangerous and even fatal in worst case scenarios. The latest figures from the Water Incident Database, which is maintained by the National Water Safety Forum (NWSF) show that there were 226 accidental drownings in 2022.

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So it’s important to check if an environment is safe to swim in before stepping in, and also ensure you are able to swim too. Dawn Whittaker, NWSF Chair, NFCC Drowning Prevention Lead and CEO East Sussex Fire Rescue Service said in a statement: “These devastating numbers are an annual tragic reminder about the importance of raising awareness of water safety and drowning prevention, so we urge the public to understand the dangers and to learn the importance of knowing what to do in an emergency.”

Below you will find the simple steps you should follow before deciding to take a dip in open water - and what you should do if you run into problems or see someone else in distress.

Safety tips you need to be aware of before you go open water swimming this summer.Safety tips you need to be aware of before you go open water swimming this summer.
Safety tips you need to be aware of before you go open water swimming this summer. | DZiegler - stock.adobe.com

How can I swim safely in open water?

The Outdoor Swimming Society has issued ten tips for people to follow when considering open water swimming. They are:

  • Swim sober: Being under the influence of alcohol and drugs impairs judgement, swimming ability and body temperature so it’s important not to have any substances before swimming.
  • Be cautious of jumping into water: The simple guidance is if in doubt about the depth of the water then don’t jump into it. The water could be shallower than you think which could lead to you hitting the bottom, but it could also be deeper and that could mean you’re unable to keep your head above water easily. Also be aware that there could be hazards in the water such as rocks, and remember that the water is likely to be cold and if you do jump in you could be at risk of cold water shock.
  • Watch children at all times: Young people can come into difficulty easily even in shallow water, so it’s important to keep a constant eye on them.
  • Be mindful of inflatables: Winds can lead inflatables into areas of the water you don’t want to be in, and they can also be flipped over due to winds - so if you are going to use them then do so with caution. 
  • Spot the dangers: A lot of outdoor swimming areas have signs which include local guidance for how to swim safely so you should take note of this and read it thoroughly before going for a swim. Be aware that conditions will change with  weather, wind and rain, and be particularly cautious around waterfalls and weirs where different hazards may be present depending on the conditions.
  • Float to live: If you do get into trouble, it’s important to remember to float on your back, regain control of your breathing, and relax. ‘Float to Live’ is a key life preservation message in the Royal National Lifeboat Institution (RNLI) and NWSF Respect The Water campaign.
  • Swim with others: There’s safety in numbers. It’s also a good idea to let someone on land know where you are swimming and when you expect to be back, and that way they can raise the alarm if you’re unexpectedly late.
  • Recognise the signs of drowning: People who are drowning are usually silent, so learn to look out for this. If you do think you spot someone who is drowning, call 999 and ask for the fire and rescue service or the coastguard and and throw something buoyant to the person to help them stay above the water. Do not put yourself in danger by trying to save the person yourself.
  • Learn how to spot a rip current: Rip currents typically appear as darker, narrow gaps of water heading offshore between areas of breaking waves and whitewater. If you get caught in a rip, the most important thing is to stay calm. Swim parallel to the shore until free of the rip and then head for shore. If you can stand - wade, don’t swim. Raise your hand and call for help.

The RNLI has also issued further water safety tips for the safe enjoyment of open water. They are:

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  • If swimming in the sea, choose a lifeguarded beach.
  • Plan your entry and exit points in and out of the water.
  • Enter the water slowly so your body has time to get used to the cold water.
  • Check the weather and the tide times, if relevant, before entering the water.
  • Wear a wetsuit, as this will help you stay warmer, and a brightly-coloured hat, as this will mean you can be quickly spotted in the water.
  • Take a means of calling for help with you, such as a mobile phone in a waterproof pouch or a whistle to make noise and attract attention.
  • Take warm clothes and a warm drink so you can warm yourself up when you have finished your swim.
  • Know your limits and stay within a depth of water you are comfortable with.
  • If the water looks too rough or you’re not happy with how it looks then don’t get in.

What should I do if I see someone in trouble in open water?

If you see someone in difficulty in open water, the best way you can help is by staying calm, staying on land, and following the three-step rescue guide of call, tell, throw, according to the NWSF and the RNLI. The actions of this guide are:

  • Call 999 and ask for fire and rescue if inland or the coastguard if by the sea.
  • Tell the struggling person to try to float on their back.
  • Throw them something that floats.
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