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Is Wild Swimming Safe?

Gullet Quarry

Wild swimming – taking a dip in rivers, lakes, waterfalls and streams – is fantastic fun, has great health benefits and thousands of people have been giving it a go during July 2013 – the first serious heatwave since 2006. But as cooling off during the heatwave has led to series of avoidable drownings, people are rightly asking: is wild swimming safe?

Having just written a new wild swimming book about the most beautiful locations to swim in Britain, I too have asked myself, are any of these places dangerous? One of the locations that I have always loved and I feature in the book is Gullet Quarry in Gloucestershire, a superbly beautiful spring fed pool in a natural amphitheatre that reaches more than 18C in summer. Yet there have been two utterly tragic drownings of local boys there this month. The water is warmer than the sea, there are no currents and no particular underwater obstructions. Indeed there is a community of open water swimmers who swim there all year round because it is considered a safer place to swim than the sea, or the nearby River Severn. Yet the location also has steep cliffs and attracts young lads on hot weekends who tempt each other, often after a few beers, to jump and dive from higher and higher ledges.

But does this mean that wild swimming is inherently dangerous? I believe that it is behaviours and activities around swimming that are dangerous, rather than any specific location. The official drowning statistics make sombre readings but you might be surprised that they rate outdoor swimming as a moderate risk, while other seemingly benign activities, such as canoening, fishing and sailing, are high risk. When you break down the data further, over 90% of outdoor swimming related drownings are young males, often weak or non-swimmers, under the intoxication of alcohol.

The key advice I give to beginners about swimming safety is know your limits and build up experience slowly. Water can be chilly, even in summer, and though cold water itself does not kill (you could survive a good 24 hours if dropped in the North Sea in November on hypothermia grounds alone), cold water does make you much less buoyant. Work on the principle of being able to swim 10% of the distance you can do in the pool until you have built up your cold adaptation with short swims and dips. Above all, stay close to the bank or shore. In rare incidences very cold water (we are talking winter conditions) can also cause cold shock and hyperventilation, so enter slowly and be careful jumping into deep water that might have very cold water in layers below.

In our increasingly indoor and urban society, we are losing basic outdoor skills and common sense. Half of primary school children cannot swim a length of a pool, and far fewer will have had an experience of swimming outdoors. Even the National Trust now recommends wild swimming for children, as one of the ways to ward off Nature Deficit Disorder.

So, no, I don’t believe that fencing up wild swimming locations will improve safety. Instead I want to see more inland swimming places created, such as on the continent where almost every reservoir has its beaches, most without lifeguards, as people are trusted to be able to look after themselves. I’d like to see schools include outdoor swimming in their PE lessons, families going wild swimming together, andmore water companies across the country follow the example of Rutland Water and create designated seasonal swimming beaches. The Lea Valley lakes in north London, are a prime candidate. These are beautiful, clean, safe lakes near the heart of the city, and could provide health and leisure benefits to many.

We need to change our attitude to inland waters and encourage a whole new generation to get outdoors, swim in nature, and build a love of wild places that will serve them their whole lives.

Read more tips for wild swimming safety inland and for sea swimming safety

10 ways to be wild and safe in inland waters

1 Never swim in canals, locks or urban rivers

2 Never swim in flood water and be cautious of water quality during droughts

3 Keep cuts and wounds covered with waterproof plasters if you are concerned

4 Avoid contact with blue–green algae

5 Never swim alone and keep a constant watch on weak swimmers

6 Never jump into water you have not thoroughly checked for depth and obstructions

7 Always make sure you know how you will get out before you get in

8 Don’t get too cold – warm up with exercise and warm clothes before and after a swim

9 Wear footwear if you can

10 Watch out for boats on any navigable river. Wear a coloured swim hat so you can be seen

 

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Emma Shibli says:

I couldn’t agree more. Last year I spent every day I could get off work swimming (and collecting floating litter) at the Gullet Quarry which is labelled as inherently dangerous, risky, stupid (and is illegal). Various myths about its depths, and dangers are circulated which belie the reality. It’s warmer and calmer than the sea or welsh streams, and it’s the most beautiful swimming spot ever; the ultimate summer day. You feel gloriously connected to the natural world in an ancient landscape. Just thinking about the Gullet transports me to its clear soft waters and the buzzards wheeling above. It’s usually a joyful place and it’s wonderful for people on low incomes who can’t access more expensive leisure activities.

In my life I have lost young friends in cycling, horse riding and motoring accidents; another one is paraplegic through a skiing fall. These were terrible things; the ultimate costs of adventure. And yet, whilst there is pressure to fill in the Gullet Quarry and prevent swimming there more effectively, we don’t contemplate melting the snow on mountains to stop skiers or banning cycling and horse riding or closing roads to stop driving…

We need the simple, free, exquisite pleasures of wild swimming more than ever in this world. We also need to talk about the risks in a frank and balanced way. Life is risky. We are all going to die. Let’s experience the sublime before we do.

Ben Kelly says:

Wild swimming is a brilliant way to experience real life; thanks Daniel for helping so many of us to embrace it!

Unfortunately, twenty-first century Health and Safety culture has, for a significant number of activities, nullified the requirement to think and take responsibility for ourselves.

But this is exactly what we must do if we are to enjoy wild water, and live to tell the tale.

For this reason, we need to allow young people to assess their own risks, to build a foundation of common sense and an ability to make informed decisions.

I’m sure that all the locations in the book are safe on a good day (I have swum in many) however it’s important to realise that no location will be safe all of the time.

Most importantly have fun, don’t overestimate your knowledge and ability, and live to swim another day!

Anonymous says:

Swam for the first time in a lake in Ullswater. We were having a picnic and the water temperature was mild. I started by dipping my feet in and then eventually needed to swim. Luckily my niece could lend me her swimming costume although I was prepared to go in dressed as the water was so inviting. I had some trainers that were suitable for water so the pebbles did not bother me. I felt so exhilarated afterwards that I want to renew that experience. I live near the Rickmansworth aquadrome and will find out if the water is suitable fr swimming.