Safety Tips for Open Water Swimming

September 11, 2014

Swimming in open water can be dangerous. If you are aware of and manage the risks, though, you will have many successful open water adventures. Here are 10 essential guidelines to help you do just that.

If you have never been in open water before, or if you are new to a body of water, make sure you know everything you should before getting your feet wet.


Practice in a Pool

Obviously, it’s best to learn how to swim in the relative calm of your local pool. That’s a good place to start learning three key open water swimming skills: sighting, bilateral breathing, and a “choppy-water” freestyle.



Don’t Go Alone

Let’s start with the obvious: Never swim in open water by yourself. Having a fellow swimmer is one way to fulfill this most-basic safety measure, but they will be of little help if you encounter an unexpected current or creature of the deep. Better than a fellow swimmer is a friend in a kayak or a power boat. Know only land-lubbers? Have someone walk the shoreline with you, if water and weather conditions allow it. If disaster strikes, this person can go for help.



Know Your Currents


Hot Tip: Back to Shore

How to escape a rip current: If you are swimming and suddenly find the shoreline getting farther and farther away, you are caught in a rip current: a channel of water flowing away from the shore. If you want to make it back to shore, the only thing to do is swim PARALLEL with the shore. Once you are out of the rip current, you can turn toward land and swim to solid ground. 


Swiftly moving water can pull you astray, potentially miles off-shore, off-target, or even underwater. In many popular open water swim locations, currents are infamous for their strength and speed. In other places, you may need to do some asking around to find out about water conditions, which can change hourly.



Check the Water Temperature

Most pools are between 79 and 85 degrees. Most bodies of water are not that warm. Water that is 70 degrees Fahrenheit doesn’t sound that cold (heck, your thermostat is probably set around 68), but it really is. If you are not going to be in cold water that long, you might be okay without a wetsuit. Just beware that you are at risk for suffering from hypothermia, and should know the symptoms.



Check the Weather

Many other weather factors can affect conditions in the water. Wind can create “chop,” or surface waves. Stormwater runoff can alter temperature and water clarity. Warm springtime weather can cause cold, deep, fast-moving water even into the summer months. Find out how local weather conditions are affecting water conditions where you want to swim.



Know Your Sea Creatures

Find out what creatures you are likely (or even unlikely) to encounter on your swim. Research if the bay is home to any sharks (some sharks are completely harmless to humans), jellyfish, or nettles. 


Hot Tip: Afraid of Sharks

Sharks don’t want to eat you: Many people cite a "fear of sharks" as the main reason they don't swim in open water. The truth is that your odds of being killed by a shark are very, very, very small. While there are over 350 kinds of shark, fewer than 10 have been involved in a significant number of attacks on humans. And many of those attacks were either provoked or a case of mistaken identity. 


Think little too: find out if there are unacceptable levels of bacteria. Many beaches are actually closed to swimming after rainstorms because of dangerous levels of bacteria that arrive with the stormwater runoff. Make a mental plan for what you can do if you encounter any of the local wildlife.



Have a "Plan A"

Figure out where you are planning to go on your swim. Is it point-to-point or an out-and-back adventure? How long? Whatever your answer, have a plan and know the route. Most importantly, familiarize yourself not only with water conditions, but also with the shoreline. Particularly if you are swimming point-to-point, check the exit point, and make sure you can actually get out of the water there! 



Have a "Plan B"

Before you set off swimming, have a plan for exiting the water if conditions (or you) deteriorate. Expect that unexpected things may happen.  No matter what happens, your plan B will help keep you safe. This is where the friend in a power boat can be handy. Just climb in the boat if conditions are that bad, and you’ll be on your way to solid ground in no time. The closer you stay to shore, the more options you will have, especially if the shore is exit-able for the entire length of your swim.



Check In with the Lifeguards

At some open water swimming areas, local jurisdictions have lifeguards on duty. Tell the lifeguards what you are doing. Not only might they be able to come to your rescue if you get caught in a current, but you’ll also ensure that they won’t come racing out to “save” you when they see you swimming somewhere they wouldn’t expect you to be. The added bonus of checking in with the lifeguards is that they will have up-to-date information on weather and currents.



Keep It Simple

Even if you are feeling unafraid of the unpredictability of open water, take it easy on your first swim. Gain experience with some easy swims (back-and-forth along a lifeguarded beach, for example), so that when you encounter your first open-water problem/challenge, the stakes aren’t life-threateningly high. If you are feeling nervous and scared about your first open water foray, try to find a place with calm water where you can swim parallel to shore. 


Safety First

Always remember the number one rule of open water swimming: never, ever swim alone. If you keep to these 10 safety tips, you should have fun, empowering open water swims.

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