Wild Swimming health, safety, risks and dangers

Waterfall and Pool

Not being able to swim – sounds obvious but shallow water can deepen suddenly. If you, your children or your friends cannot swim make sure you scout out the extent of the shallows, set clear boundaries and keep constant supervision. Remember that even shallow sections of fast-flowing water can knock you off your feet. Be careful with inflatables, which can create a false sense of security and float off into deep sections or burst. Buy a good quality buoyancy aid for non-swimmers (about £40) and, best of all, learn to swim. Not being able to swim as well as you think is also a killer, especially in cold water…

Cold water and Hypothermia – outdoor swimming in cold water saps body heat, reduces swimming ability / range and impairs judgement. Shivering and teeth-chattering are the first stages of mild hypothermia, so get out of the water and warm up with a combination of warm, dry clothes and activity. Press-ups, star-jumps and running up a nearby hill are the quickest! Wear a wetsuit if you want to stay in for more than a quick dip. Cold water reduces the ability to swim well by changing the body position in the water (more horizontal as the body tries to keep the head up) and contracting muscles (stroke positions of hands and arms becomes less efficient). Generally assume you can swim only one tenth of the distance in cold water as you can in a warm pool. Reduced swimming capability is the major cause of drowning, particular in lakes where swimmers may attempt to reach the other side, and the weakest in the group may become detached and drown at the rear, far from shore and out of sight of help.

Cold-shock –  the involuntary gasp / inhalation reflex and rise in heart rate that occurs as the unacclimatized body enters very cold water. Test the temperature and wade in slowly unless you are already acclimatised to outdoor swimming. If you like jumping, and suddenly from a height into deep still water (like a deep lake) the lower layers may be much, much colder than the surface layer, leading to a cold shock reaction under the water, potentially fatal. Always acclimatise before jumping.

Slipping on rocks – One of the most common dangers in outdoor swimming. Rocks are very slippery when wet and you don’t want to hit your head. Never run. Go barefoot to get a better grip or wear plimsolls with a rubber sole. If you enjoy more serious scrambling along rivers why not join a gorge-walking or canyoning (canyoneering) course? A head injury while in or near water could be fatal if you pass out in the water.

Jumping and diving – Always check the depth of the water, even if you visit the same spot regularly. Depths can vary and new underwater obstructions (sand, rocks, branches, rubbish) may have been brought downstream or tipped in. A broken neck from a diving accident could paralyse you for life. Do not jump into the landing area of a large waterfall, the undercurrents directly below a large waterfall or weir could hold you under and you may not surface. Do not jump if you are not acclimatised to cold water (see above)

Cramps and solo-swimming – Swimming cramp can occur in the calf or foot and tends to be caused by lack of salt, overexertion, over-stretching and tiredness. Cramp is not more likely after eating but dehydration, or a poor diet in general, can make you especially prone. Generally you will know if you are susceptible to cramp, but not always. If you get a leg cramp, shout for help, lie on your back and paddle back to shore with your arms. Swimming alone in deep water is foolish but, if you must, wear a life jacket or trail a float behind you on a cord.

Weeds – Most common in slow, warm lowland river swimming and lake swimming, weeds are quite easy to see and, while one or two aren’t such a problem, a spaghetti-like forest could entangle a swimmer’s legs and cause panic. Try to avoid them. If you do encounter some, slow your swim speed right down, don’t kick or thrash, and either float on through using your arms to paddle, or turn around slowly. Generally it is the panic that drowns a swimmer, rather than the weeds themselves.

Blue–green algae – In lowland lake swimming, after warm, wet weather, usually in late summer, algae can multiply and a powdery, green scum (the blooms) can collect on the downwind side of a lake. It’s obvious and unpleasant and can give you a skin rash or irritate your eyes if you bathe in it, and make you sick if you swallow it. Find a part of the lake without blooms or go somewhere else.

‘Swimmer’s itch’ (cercarial dermatitis) – can be caught from contact with little snails that live on the reeds around marshy lakes and stagnant ponds. It is rare and creates a temporary but sometimes intense itching sensation that can last for up to two days. It’s not common, and requires no treatment, but it’s best to avoid wallowing in the bogs when outdoor swimming!

Weil’s disease – In urban areas sewers and storm drains may harbour colonies of rats whose urine may carry the bacterial infection Leptospirosis. Never swim in urban rivers, particularly canals, and be particularly cautious after heavy rains. If you are concerned about water quality cover any open wound with a waterproof plaster and keep your head (eyes, nose and throat) out of the water as much as possible. If you get flu or jaundice-like symptoms three to fourteen days after swimming in high risk water ask your doctor for a Leptospirosis test. It is simply treated with antibiotics but if left it can develop into the more serious Weil’s disease, which has been known to kill.

Underwater RocksMoving water and currents

For more on coastal currents click here.

Lots of our best water moves and river swimming in and against a current can be fun, just like swimming in seaside surf. However, you generally want to avoid being taken downstream in an uncontrolled manner. Even shallow water, if it’s moving fast enough, can knock you over and carry you away. Always consider: if I do lose my footing or get swept downstream, where will I get out? Identify your emergency exits before getting in and scout around for any downstream hazards (obstructions, waterfalls or weirs).

Beware the dangers of swimming above or near to waterfalls, and then being swept downstream and over the waterfall.

When judging flow rates remember the basics: the shallower or narrower the river bed becomes, the faster the water must flow to pass through, and vice versa. That’s why ‘still waters run deep’. Throw a stick in the water to judge flow speed and avoid anything moving faster than you can swim. In tidal estuaries there can also be counter-flows, with seawater moving in and river water moving out. In deep rivers or gorges the water in the surface layer may be flowing more slowly than the water beneath. These confused waters aren’t necessarily dangerous or outdoor swmiming – you’re not going to be sucked under – but they can be disorientating and may take you out into deeper water or close to an obstruction. You can generally feel what’s happening under the water with your feet and body. Large eddies and surface ‘simmering’ also suggest something more powerful is happening beneath. Be particularly cautious in these unpredictable waters.

Currents can be especially powerful directly under large waterfalls or weirs. As with breaking waves the water can be flowing in two directions, with some water exiting from the fall downstream while some creates a ‘rip-tide’ that is circulating to the back of the fall. Semi-circular or ‘box’ weirs, which have three sides, create particularly dangerous re-circulating currents in the confined space within their walls. In a large plunge pool you’ll generally feel the currents long before you are in danger of being pulled under the waterfall but if you are foolish enough to swim into the tumult, and are taken down, it’s like being caught in a wave’s undertow. Keep calm, hold your breath, hope you don’t get dragged along a rocky bottom and wait a few seconds until you are spat out. If you live through this and want to know more about the extreme sport of river swimming in wild rivers, riding river currents then search online for river boarding, hydrospeed or whitewater sledging.

So is wild-swimming dangerous?

About 400 people drown every year in the UK, but only a tiny percentage of these drown while outdoor swimming. An analysis of recent annual accident data shows that of the 12 per cent of drowning victims who died while actually swimming, 7 people drowned in swimming pools, 11 in the sea, tidal pools and estuaries, and 7 in rivers, lakes, reservoirs or canals. In addition there were 8 who died swimming drunk, 30 who died through ‘jumping in’ to water and 17 who died in ‘jumping and diving accidents’. 95 per cent of all swimming drowning victims were male and many were teenagers. (Sources: Royal Society for Protection of Accidents 2002 data; River and Lake Swimming Association; Jean Perraton in Swimming Against the Stream)

You can also read a little more about this at the Safe Watersports website.

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