Risks Associated with Cold Water Swimming

These are not meant to put you off starting to swim “in the wild” but more to give you some information and increase your awareness.  This will ensure that you are well prepared for each session and we can mitigate many of these risks.  We will discuss these and many other factors, during the course of your sessions and I look forward to helping you to progress both your skill level and knowledge base as well as introducing you to this fabulous outdoor experience.  

Guidelines for Swimming

  • Never swim alone, or without at least a spotter.
  • Don’t drink alcohol prior to or immediately after swimming.
  • Check entry point and exit point.
  • Enter the water slowly.
  • Make sure you are visible to other swimmers and watercraft.
  • Take a tow float if you swim out of your depth.
  • If you get into difficulties – float on your back and raise one hand for attention.
  • Check weather and tide times.
  • Leave your kit in a safe place, out with the reach of the incoming tide.

Risks Associated with Cold Water Immersion

  • Cold Water Shock – immediate gasp reflex with the potential to inhale water.
  • Aggravation of conditions like Raynaulds – hence the requirement for Neoprene gloves and footwear during the Winter months.
  • Swim Failure – Body restricts flow of blood to limbs to retain core heat, arms and legs struggle to function, after a period of time, length of time is specific to individual and conditions.
  • Hypothermia – Drop in Core body temperature, factors impacting on the length of time before this occurs vary significantly from person to person and day to day, so an awareness of the signs is key to safety.
  • After Drop – Is the body continuing  to cool after exiting the water, hence the need for warm layers and quick dressing.  However, it is also felt as the cool blood from the extremities begins to circulate through the core again, hence the need for slow warming and ensuring a hot bath or shower is avoided until this period is past.
  • Other potential hazards include, water borne bacteria, stings, cuts etc, being knocked over by the waves.
  • Risks, again very with the venue and will be discussed at the beginning of each session.\

Suggestions for mitigating risks

Be Prepared 

Carefully research each and every swim. Don’t be lulled into a false sense of security because you have been swimming in that venue all Summer. Every swim is different, affected by how you feel, the weather – especially the wind, the air and water temperatures and the tide. 

Do your research the day before into the known variables. Make an early call if conditions are not right, it might be you choose to go later in the day because the tide is more favourable. Or earlier because there is a good weather window. Or even to a different venue to shelter from the wind. 

On the day of the swim make considered choices, for example, if there has been a strong wind and rain during the previous days, the water quality will be poorer. Will you decide not to swim or go anyway? If you do decide to go, you should note that the temperature of the water will be lower. Other precautions might be to cover any cuts or grazes and choose not to submerge your head.

Arriving at your swim venue, having considered all the known variables, you then need to assess what is presenting itself to you – there and then.

If it is not right, don’t go. You can always have a windy walk, pick up some shells, make a bit of beach art, drink your coffee and go home. The cob webs will still be blown away, but safe and sensible decisions will have been made.

Swimming in the Scottish Winter is “Baltic”!!! The wind being the key element in a cold and unpleasant experience. However, some of the best swims are the short unexpectedly beautiful Winter ones with zingy skin and frozen feet. So what can you do to mitigate the cold and stay safe?

Swim Regularly

Over the Autumn months you really need to keep swimming outdoors more than once a week in order to remain acclimatised. So planning more than one swim a week is essential, as cancellations will occur. If you swim regularly – whether in skins or wetsuit, you should use the gradual drop in the water temperatures during the Autumn, to become aware of how your body is coping. This mindful practice will allow you to develop an ability to note key signs that are personal to you and your red flag signal to “get out”. 

It might be that your body feels heavy in the water as the blood is pulled from the extremities to the core. As this occurs the legs work less effectively and drop lower in the water causing drag. This is the start of cold water incapacitation. Perhaps you can use this little exercise to test the function of your extremities as you swim – well breast stroke at any rate!

“Can I touch my thumb to my middle finger on the same hand, easily and quickly?”

If you can’t then you are experiencing another classic tell tale sign to get out. Your hands begin to feel stiff and claw like. If you are a Reynaulds sufferer, you will be aware of this progression already. However, we all must ensure we are able to exit and still have the ability to dress afterwards. So be aware and take care, neoprene is not easy to remove at the best of times and zips and buttons are fiddly things.

Post Swim Precautions 

We cannot recommend highly enough the value of lots and lots and lots of layers!!! The Autumn is the time to build these back into your routine, or add them if you have not started yet. We regularly put seven layers on our top halves after a swim. How? I hear you ask!! Try this list out next time you swim.

  • Bra , but more likely just a Vest – easier to put on as you remove your swim suit.
  • Thermal long sleeved top
  • T-Shirt
  • Fleece
  • Down Jacket
  • Gillet
  • DryRobe or Windproof Jacket if Swim-Walking

Our bottom halves get a double layer of an easy to slip on pair of trousers and then over trousers, especially if it is windy.

With extremities getting double layers as well, wool socks and thermal or sheepskin lined boots for the feet and wool or thermal gloves and handmade wool wrist warmers to protect the hands.

All topped off with a cosy handmade neck warmer and wool and fleece lined hat

To Change or not to Change – That is the Question?

We always get changed at the site of the swim, despite living only two streets back from the beach. It is a choice and many wetsuit swimmers prefer to remain in their wet wetsuits and walk / drive home like that.

Personally, I can’t think of anything worse than squelching home or making my car even more soggy and sandy that it usually is. And trying to get my wetsuit off in the shower without falling through the door – maybe not!

I do not recommend walking home in wet gear at all for “skins” swimmers, you should build the change routine in to your swim timings. You must ensure you still have plenty of reserves left to operate your “clothing pile” unscrew the lid of you flask and make conversation with your swim buddies.

Socialising, reconnecting, mental health and support is very much part of the ever increasing Open Water swim commnuity. If you are going to take full benefit of this you are going to want to hang out and enjoy the company and cake afterwards. Afterdrop is a huge concern all year but even more so in the Autumn / Winter and Spring and can be skirted quite close to for a variety of reasons. That said, the closest I have come to experiencing it to any noticeable degree has been in July – having stayed in swimming too long and not rewarmed sufficiently before standing around in a draft.

Afterdrop – this is a normal experience after a cold water swim. The severity of the effects depends on the precautions you have or have not elected to take, as well as the length of time you have spent exposed to the Winter weather and cold water. Your body will continue to cool down after you leave the water and it takes two to three times the length of your swim time for you to return to a “normal” feel. So to prevent the discomfort and occasionally scary feelings brought on by a severe case of after drop, you must; exit with reserves and the ability to dress quickly. Don’t be beguiled by the wonderful feeling the cold water imparts.