That advice came from a session on safety when open water swimming I attended this week. The session was organized by the Rideau Speedeaus, an Ottawa swim club, and there were three presenters.
Chris Wagg has been with the City of Ottawa as a lifeguard and trainer for 35 years. She started out with some drowning statistics for Canada. Next up was Nadine Bennett, a well-known open water and cold water swimmer in Ottawa, who blogs at https://www.wildbigswim.com/. The last speaker was Jeff Mackwood, a lifeguard and the person who set up the Swim Angel program for Ottawa’s 3 km Bring on the Bay swim, which has made it very accessible to those with disabilities, recovering from injury, or nervous about open water swimming.
On average, there are about 500 drownings a year in Canada, with 64% in May to September, 64% in lakes or rivers, and over 60% when swimming alone. The percentage of drownings among middle aged and older people swimming alone is much higher. Obviously, not all of these drownings are among open water swimmers, but it was a good jumping off point for some basic swim safety when swimming outdoors.
Swim with a buddy. If you can’t then at a minimum let people know where exactly where you will be swimming and when you expect to be back.
Medical emergencies are more frequent as you get older – have a buddy who can call for help, loan you a float, or just coach you back to shore.
Make yourself as visible as possible in the water. Wear a brightly coloured swim cap and a tow float. If available to you, especially for longer swims or where there might be boats, having a kayaker to go alongside is even better. If you are swimming early in the morning or late in the evening, invest in some lights you can attach to your wrist and swim goggles
Tow floats are not official flotation devices, but they do float, so you can use them to rest on. They are also good for holding snacks, drinks, your car keys, phone and other valuables (be sure to put them in a waterproof bag just in case the float leaks). Write your name and a phone number on the float, in case of an emergency.
If you don’t have a tow float, tie a rope to a pool noodle. It won’t hold your keys, but it will make you visible and you can rest on it in the water.
If you are new to swimming in open water, or out of practice, start out easy. Do short loops. Stay close to shore. Stop for a rest or snack as needed, then go back in if you are ready. If you are nervous or out of shape, find a supervised beach and swim along the buoy lines.
Learn to breathe regularly even when there are waves (bilateral breathing is a really useful skill). Also practice swimming in a straight line by picking a target, then peeking up every few strokes with “alligator eyes” just barely out of the water to make sure you are still heading in the right direction.
Listen to your body. Especially if you are going in the shoulder seasons of May or late Fall, pay attention to your breathing and heart rate, and whether you are losing the ability to move easily in the water because you are cold. Make sure you have a plan to get out and changed into warm dry clothes quickly. You may experience “after drop”, shivering as the blood starts circulating. Wait until that has passed before trying to drive home.
Pay attention to the weather and be prepared to get out quickly if a storm rolls in. Swimming in the fog or dark can be dangerous. This is what can earn you that Darwin Award.
Above all, have fun. Practice some drills. Do other strokes than freestyle. Take pictures. Admire the scenery. Revel in the freedom of being in a wide open space with glorious water all around.
Diane Harper is a long-time open water swimmer from Ottawa. She isn’t fast, but she has a lot of fun.
As I noted on Monday we’re on a bit of cold weather/outdoors swimming kick around the blog. Here’s some of the videos I’ve found. If you have any that you recommend, that I’ve missed please let us know in the comments!
As I noted on Monday we’re on a bit of cold weather/outdoors swimming kick around the blog. Here’s some of the resources I’ve found. If you have any that you recommend, that I’ve missed please let us know in the comments!
Wild Big Swim: “One of my greatest passions is swimming in cold and ice water, there’s really nothing quite like it! I’ve put together a series of articles based on my personal experiences, to share what I’ve learned over the years with others – use this information responsibly, and at your own risk. Don’t forget to seek the advice of your doctor if you’re thinking of taking up chilly swimming, to be sure it’s right for you!”
The health benefits and risks of cold water swimming: “Cold water swimming may seem like an odd pastime to the uninitiated. But while you might question the sanity of those who decide to take an open-water dip in the depths of winter, research has shown there are actually a host of health benefits – both mental and physical – to taking the plunge. The joys of such a pursuit are well noted – both anecdotally and scientifically – but there are of course risks. Here, we reveal the reasons why you should dip your toes (and more!) into cold water this winter, and explain how to do so safely.”
Swimming in Very Cold Water Keeps Me Sane: “I’m standing with two friends in the 39-degree air on the edge of a lake in northeastern California in just our bathing suits. A lone fisherman in several layers of outerwear stares, drinks from a bottle of Racer Ale and says, “Tell me you ladies aren’t going in that water.” We go in that water. It’s probably 56 degrees. It’s not the coldest water in the world currently being swum, not “My Octopus Teacher” cold — that guy swims in 48-degree water all the time, but hey, he’s in love with an octopus. What do you expect?”
We’re also, as a group, reviewing Why We Swim by Bonnie Tsui. We usually do it chapter by chapter, book club style, so readers can join in. Details to follow later this week! (And yes, in the interests of transparency, that’s an Amazon affiliate link. We don’t make much from them but they do cover the costs of an ad-free WordPress blog.)
Here’s the back of the book blurb: “An immersive, unforgettable, and eye-opening perspective on swimming—and on human behavior itself. We swim in freezing Arctic waters and piranha-infested rivers to test our limits. We swim for pleasure, for exercise, for healing. But humans, unlike other animals that are drawn to water, are not natural-born swimmers. We must be taught. Our evolutionary ancestors learned for survival; now, in the twenty-first century, swimming is one of the most popular activities in the world. Why We Swim is propelled by stories of Olympic champions, a Baghdad swim club that meets n Saddam Hussein’s palace pool, modern-day Japanese samurai swimmers, and even an Icelandic fisherman who improbably survives a wintry six-hour swim after a shipwreck. New York Times contributor Bonnie Tsui, a swimmer herself, dives into the deep, from the San Francisco Bay to the South China Sea, investigating what about water—despite its dangers—seduces us and why we come back to it again and again.”
What’s ‘wild swimming’? As Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett in the Guardian notes we used to just call it ‘swimming’ or ‘outdoor swimming.’ It’s like ‘forest bathing’ which used to just be called ‘hiking in the woods.’ What’s new is an emphasis on the physical and mental health benefits. And wild swimming often involves swimming off season–not just in the hot summer months, but fall and spring, and for some of the braver souls like Diane and Lynette, wintertime too. I don’t think the term has quite taken off here in Canada like it has in the UK.
Why am I tempted at all? Here’s my two main reasons:
Fond childhood memories of Newfoundland and Nova Scotia. On the east coast of Canada the beaches always meant cold water swimming even in July and August. Mostly kids went in while adults huddled on shore. I want to recapture some childhood feels. Biking does that. Maybe cold water swimming will too?
I love swimming outside but I can’t seem to get into pool swimming. I like indoor rowing (hi erg!) and outdoor rowing. I love indoor biking (hey Zwift!) and outdoor riding. But swimming? Nope. No matter how much I try it’s never taken. But I love being in the water outdoors.
Okay how do I move from ‘feeling intrigued’ to ‘giving it a go’? I asked some of my winter swimming friends for advice. Should I wait until summer? Start now?
Albert Nerenberg, a friend from my undergrad student newspaper days, writes, “You can really start any time because the two key components are the breathing and the cold showers. You can get most of the benefits from cold immersion from those two practices. But people naturally escalate to outdoor swimming. Cold exposure doesn’t have to be long. 3-5 minutes for benefits. So anytime is good because the breath warm up can be done with even warmer water and you’re still in the process.”
Albert is an advocate of the health benefits of both cold water swimming and laughing. He combines them in this video.
Here’s the specific breathing technique Albert recommends.
Lynette’s words of wisdom? “One piece of advice people give is to acclimatize over a few years and extend the season rather than starting early. But last year I started early because who wants to hear that in April? Go in slowly (walk I don’t dive) and monitor your breathing so you start to notice when you involuntarily hold your breath or take a breath in and re-establish it before going in farther. Wind is a worse enemy than temperature.”
What about special gear? Do I need any?
“You can put neoprene gloves booties and a cap on. Or wetsuits or whatever versions of wetsuits triathletes wear which have greater mobility. Or your bathing suit. At the beginning you just get in and out. Dip. Swim later. Never push yourself with goals and expectations in cold water swimming. Get warm after,” says Lynette.
Also, research safety tips before you go. Here’s cold water tips from Outdoor Swimmer magazine and more tips from the outdoor swimming society.
Here’s Lynette, photos from her earlier post.
Diane also recommended safety first. (We’re like that here on the blog!)
She writes, “I would start with Nadine’s website, which has lots of info based on years of training for cold swimming. My advice would be to listen to your body and don’t ever push beyond your comfort zone. Everyone is different and some very experienced long-distance open water swimmers can’t get in, while other people find it relatively easy. Some use wetsuits, others don’t (I don’t because I worry about struggling to change out of a wetsuit when I’m cold). Personally, I found that just extending my season in the fall was the best way to do it. But when I was swimming today, I saw a man, a kid and a dog all in the water, so now is also manageable.”
The colder it is, the more you need to be concerned about safety.
“In cold weather, wind and precipitation can be brutal, both physically and psychologically. The usual water safety rules apply more than ever – swim with buddies, have a plan, know your swim area, wear a float for visibility, especially if there are boats or windsurfers in the area. Bring snacks for when you get out as you will be hungry – cake is traditional,” says Diane.
I wondered if most people actually swim in the water or if it’s more ‘get in, get out’ like the polar bear dip.
Diane says she actually swims.
“I actually swim, but there is usually some time spent getting acclimatized. Sometimes it’s all head’s up breaststroke because putting my face in is too hard. Today it was about 350 m I think, and I was in for a little over 20 minutes. I would have stayed in longer but my swimming buddy is new to it and she was starting to get cold. The colder it is, the harder it is, obviously. I have trained for an ice mile (bathing suit and one cap, not gloves or socks, in water under 5C). I will never do one because I’m just not fast enough to complete that distance in under about 40 minutes, which is extreme. But a day like today, with water at or above 10C, 45 minutes is easy now.”
Here’s Diane and her friend Nadine making the cold water look as welcoming as a hot tub.
What’s next? Well, I promise to give swimming outside this spring, earlier than usual, a go. And I’ll report back. If Catherine lived closer–damn you geography and borders–I’d give her a call and we’d go swimming together.
I also want to write about British swimmer Kate Steele who has done not one, not two, but EIGHT ice miles! What’s an ice mile? “Find a body of water that is below 5C, and swim one mile under supervision wearing only your swimming costume, a pair of goggles and one silicone swimming hat.”
And stay tuned for our group book review of Why We Swim.