by Lane Vail
Bostonian avid open-water swimmer Kate Radville is delighted that water constitutes 70 percent of the Earth’s surface. “The controlled environment of a swimming pool is convenient,” she says, “but splashing around outside in the beautiful summer sunshine is undeniably liberating.”
Enthusiasts are both attracted by the rugged beauty of wild water and humbled by its power, but without proper skill or knowledge, swimming in natural settings can be risky. “Millions of dollars are annually spent on advertising, tourism and beach restoration projects to bring people to water,” says Dave Benjamin, executive director of the Great Lakes Surf Rescue Project, “yet, the American Red Cross finds that 54 percent of Americans lack basic water emergency lifesaving skills.” Maximize enjoyment and safety in the open water by heeding basic guidelines.
Be Weather Wise. Check the forecast before heading out and be conscious of any sudden climate changes. Leave the water or the area in the event of thunder or lightning. Tall buildings or mountains may block the view of the sky, and storms can pop up quickly, so Benjamin recommends using a battery-powered portable radio or smartphone app for weather updates. Wind and atmospheric pressure shifts can stir up waves for hours, so hesitate before returning to the water after a storm.
Glean Information. “I can’t think of a time I’ve jumped into water I knew nothing about,” says Radville. “Some research prior to swimming is definitely advisable.”
Renowned coach Steven Munatones, founder of the World Open Water Swimming Association, suggests walking along the beach to look for caution signs, surf conditions boards, flags, buoys, rope lines and available rescue equipment, plus emergency callboxes that pinpoint one’s location if cell phone service is weak. Even seemingly pristine waters can be contaminated by harmful bacteria, algal blooms or runoff pollutants after rain. “Chat with local beach-goers, swimmers, boaters or fishermen about current swimming conditions in designated areas,” counsels Munatones, and check social media sites like Facebook and area online swimming forums.
Nature is unpredictable, and there are inherent risks associated with swimming in open water, so I always swim with a buddy for companionship and basic safeguarding.
Steer Clear. Be mindful of hidden underwater hazards, ranging from sharp objects to submerged construction, which can create turbulent water and strong undercurrents. Swim in lifeguard-protected areas away from windsurfers, jet skiers and boaters that may not hear or see swimmers, adds Munatones.
Respect Marine Life. Munatones advises giving marine life, however beautiful, a wide berth. “I’ve swum around the world with all sorts of intriguing sea life,” he says, “and these are wild animals, not the friendly ones you see in marine parks.” Stop swimming and watch the animal until it’s moved on.
Be Water Wise. Water temperature, depth and movement, which fluctuate with rain, tides and wind, can also make conditions unpredictable, so research a destination beforehand. Pockets of cold water within an otherwise tepid mountain lake could induce a gasp response or hyperventilation, says Munatones, and prolonged immersion increases risk of muscle impairment and hypothermia.
Likewise, an unexpected drop in the water floor may provoke panic. “Physically, someone capable of swimming in three feet of water can also swim in 300 feet,” says Munatones. “But mentally, deep water can feel spooky.”
Rip currents are powerful streams that flow along the surface away from the shoreline. They may be easily spotted from the beach, but often go unnoticed by swimmers. “A potentially fatal mistake is allowing a ‘fight-or-flight’ response to kick in and trying to swim against the current, because rips are treadmills that will exhaust your energy,” cautions Benjamin. Instead, flip, float and follow the safest path out of the water, a technique that conserves energy and alleviates stress and panic, he says.
Watch for Waves. Swim facing oncoming waves and dive under the powerful white foam, coaches Munatones. “Feel the swell wash over you before coming up to the surface.” If knocked off balance by a wave, relax, hold your breath and wait for the tumbling to cease. Swim toward the light if disoriented under the water, and make sure your head is above any froth before inhaling.
“Your lungs are your personal flotation device that keep the body buoyant,” says Benjamin. “Lay back and focus on your breathing.”
While Coast Guard-approved flotation devices should be worn by children at all times, they are not substitutes for supervision, says Rob Rogerson, a lifeguard and ocean rescue training officer in Palm Beach County, Florida. “Parents must watch swimming and non-swimming children vigilantly.”
“The power of the open water is immense,” says Munatones. “Be respectful, always.”
Lane Vail is a freelance writer and blogger at DiscoveringHomemaking.com.