It’s that time of year again so here’s the annual reminder for those who plan to continue swimming in the great outdoors over the winter months.
Cold water swimming is generally defined as swimming in waters below 15 degrees C and it’s currently well below that both in the sea and the freshwater rivers and lakes. Rivers and lakes are down around 7 degrees C at the moment and the sea is anywhere from 9 to 11 degrees. The difference is worth noting. You can be quite comfortable (within reason) at 10 or 11 degrees and struggle badly at 7 or 8. Be very careful if you’re used to sea swimming and make a sudden change to a river or lake. Freshwater temperatures are also very much still on the way down so be warned! I was swimming in the sea off Allihies at the weekend and felt fine after 25 minutes. 10 minutes in the river at O’Brien’s Bridge yesterday and I had had enough.
Some tips to stay safe when swimming in cold water:
- Plan ahead. Know the likely water temperature and your own capabilities. If you are new to cold water swimming get a doctor’s opinion – some medical conditions are not suited to exposure to cold water. Arrange to meet other swimmers or dippers and avoid swimming alone.
- Bring the right equipment, this may include:
- Wet suit
- Neoprene hat, gloves, boots/socks designed for cold water protection
- A hot water bottle and a flask of hot tea, coffee, or soup for after the swim
- Dry towel and clothes – plenty of layers
- Waterproof watch – you need to keep an eye on the time spent in the water
- Float – brightly colored, so you can be seen and it can be used as a buoyancy aid if necessary
- Clothes that can be easily and quickly put on with cold hands
I know very capable swimmers, including channel swimmers, who may not wear a wet suit or neoprene gloves, etc., but will NOT swim alone or without a float, and ALWAYS monitor their time in the water.
- Stay warm until you get into the water – the warmer you are getting in the longer it will take to cool down your core body temperature. Exercise such as running prior to a cold water swim is not recommended as it can lead to cramps.
- Take your time getting in – jumping or diving in can cause cold water shock and debilitate you. Cold water shock can cause hyperventilation, loss of strength and muscle control, and potentially drowning.
- Monitor your condition in the water and stay a safe distance from an exit point. Hypothermia can debilitate and is potentially fatal. If you start to shiver, feel excessively cold, or feel a lack of energy, you may be starting to experience hypothermia and you should make your way out of the water. This can lead to uncontrollable shivering, loss of muscle coordination, and confusion which you don’t want, especially if you’re still swimming.
- Get to know your own reactions to cold water – and don’t wait for hypothermia symptoms to get out of the water and get dry and warm. Hypothermia can worsen after you leave the water as the cold blood close to the skin starts to circulate to the core.
- Once out of the water reduce heat loss and get warm as soon as possible. You may not feel that cold but hypothermia symptoms may not start until 10 minutes or so after you leave the water. Don’t hang around, you can chat when you’re dressed and warm(er)
- Some swimmers bring warm water to pour over themselves when they get out first. Warm water after being immersed in water at 5 or 6 degrees can be as little as 10 or 15 degrees. If it’s hot it’ll feel like you’re scalding yourself.
- Pile on the layers of clothes and when dry and dressed take some of the hot drink you have thoughtfully brought with you and grab the hot water bottle.
These tips are focussed on the effects of cold water, but always be aware of other sea, river or lake hazards, including choppy waters, icy or slippery exit points, strong currents, encroaching darkness or reduced visibility, and the potential hazards from the human body, such as cramp or SIPE (swimming induced pulmonary edema). Some, if not all, of these, will be made worse in cold water. Be prepared, don’t swim alone, know your limits and stick to them.
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