Is it ok to open water swim alone?
Some may say “the first rule of open water swimming is never swim alone”
But as someone who regularly swimms alone (especially when the slightly softer skinned swimmers retire for the year) I think a more inclusive rule might be to have as much fun as possible whilst staying safe. Everything in life is a balancing act, and whilst it can be safer to swim in a group, or even better with a safety kayak or boat this isn’t always feasible, especially for those spontaneous after work swims.
Yes you may run into trouble, have a heart attack or a stroke, or even get hit by a boat, and although this blog recommends swimming in a group here are some ways to help mitigate the risk of going out alone:
1: Always stay within your limits.
Solo swimming is not the time to push the boundaries of speed or endurance. If you are reading this article in your 50s with diabetes yes you may have a heart attack whilst swimming, but if you swim as part of a graded exercise programme and save the hard workouts for the pool then you will reduce the risks when swimming, and will likely live a lot longer than if you were sitting on the couch! (Always seek medical advice before starting a new exercise regime). If you are feeling unwell then resting or changing to a pool or land session may be a better option. Staying close to the shore (Swimming along the coast) means if you do get into difficulty then the land is closer.
2: Adjust to the conditions.
Make sure that you are well acclimatised to the conditions you want to swim in. If there is a strong current then start your swim swimming into it so if you get tired it will take you back to the start. If the water is very rough then it will be harder to cover distance and relax so consider reducing the distance or finding somewhere more sheltered. If there is cold weather such as a northerly wind then be very wary of the risks of hypothermia, cold fingers or toes are a sign to get out of the water and warm up, don’t let the cold spread any further.
2: Make sure you are visable and can see other water users.
In the UK jellyfish can cause painful stings, but rarely cause worse harm, and sharks have yet to cause a swimming fatally. Boats and watercraft are a more real danger to be aware of, the safest option is to swim in swimming areas where these craft are not allowed, but you still need to be vigilant as they may not know the rules. Swimming close to and parallel to the shore will keep you out the way of many watercraft, but having a 360 degree awareness is still necessary. In really calm water with careful sighting on both sides you can generally see to the horizon without impeding your swim too much. In rough water it is a lot harder, you often have to go full ‘water polo’ to see more than a few meters, but this is paramount even if it does slow down your swim. Swim buoys are a great aid to increase your own visibility, and are much more effective than a coloured swim cap or wetsuit which spends most of the time below the surface, but the above applies, in rough water any swimmer is a lot harder to spot whether it be from land or another boat.
3: Know the area and Have an exit strategy.
This is so important, but often neglected area of swim safety, whenever you go solo swimming it is imperative to know the coastline, where you can and cannot get back to shore if you have difficulty, and the next safe places in either direction along the coast. A good option is to swim along a long sandy bay where you can get out at any point. The coastal waters of the UK have strong tidal currents that generally run along the coast line, these run one direction for 6 hours and then the current changes direction for 6 hours and so on. The currents are associated with high tide and low tide times, but not perfectly so looking up a tidal atlas for you area will give you some really useful knowledge of how the currents flow. The currens often speed up around headlands, sometimes much faster than an olympic swimmer could swim so take care. Knowing about the currents and your local coastline means you can plan a safe swim, and know how to get out if there are problems.
4: Don’t forget that life is better when it is shared.
…So make sure to include some group swims into your diary. Group swims often plod along at a more relaxed pace with the obligatory time for chatting, embrace this as food for the soul, and if the pace is relaxed this is a great opportunity to do some drills and technique work.
I hope that none of the above points have scared you off open water swimming! I’m a firm believer that knowing as much as you can about the water will keep you safe, planning what to do just in case you get into trouble will keep you calm in the unlikely event it does happen. If you want further advice on planning swims you can check out my guide here.