It’s been a busy few weeks at Tall One HQ. Planning for the impending “proper” open water season has started and I’ve just commenced the long journey to qualifying as an open water coach. But last week was a particularly intense week of water safety. I delivered water safety talks to our local Beaver groups, had our termly water safety week at work and attended RLSS National Water Safety Management Programme training at the weekend. My brain is all safety’d up!
Swimming can be dangerous wherever you are. In a pool, outside, if you don’t know how to keep your head above water and breathe you’re a bit stuffed. Alright, so most swimming pools will have a lovely lifeguard who will fish you out if you look like you’re going to drown. Even some open water venues have people that can do the same (I’m one of them!) but needing to be full on rescued and hauled out kind of takes the pleasure away from the whole experience. It’s not hugely enjoyable for loved ones or those involved in having to do the rescuing either.
We can’t live without water but, equally, it can do us a lot of harm if we don’t respect it!
I’ve always swum. I’ve always been happy around water. I can remember having swimming lessons as a kid and I was then lucky enough to be taken swimming very regularly by my Dad. I went on to do a lot of kayaking throughout my teens and early twenties. I chose my degree so that I could do fieldwork. I loved learning about our outdoor environment and water was a big part of that. I was always the first to put my hand up when someone needed to wade out into a river for a survey or to grab a sample.
Being around water so much, both indoor and outdoor, taught me to respect it. I’ve unintentionally swum down many a river and been pummelled by surf when I’ve fallen out of my kayak. I understand the power of water all too well.
Something that’s really hit home to me since I started swimming outside is that not everyone has that understanding. I regularly get asked questions that take me by surprise. Knowledge that I take for granted, that I just assumed everyone else has too.
But of course they don’t. Our life’s experiences make us who we are and the world would be awfully dull if we all knew the same things and thought the same way.
The questions and conversations I have with people about open water make me realise how important it is to spread the message of how to have fun but also how to be safe around water.
Swimming is a life skill, ask most parents and they’ll say that’s why they send their kids for lessons. Not because they want them to become an Olympic champion but because they want them to be safe on holiday by the sea or know they’ll be OK if they fall in the canal by accident. It’s why learning to swim is an integral part of the national curriculum in UK schools.
That’s my current life, teaching kids to swim. Once each term we have a week of focusing on water safety. It varies by age and swim ability from making sure they can float on their backs and shouting for help to successfully undertaking a rescue. We drum into the kids the importance of understanding the risks of water, particularly when they’re outside. That’s just me, in their swimming lesson though, I often wonder how much of it they take to heart when influenced by the outside world.
As an open water swimmer I’m all too aware of how my own actions as a swimmer may influence others to follow suit and take unnecessary risks, either by seeing something on social media or seeing us swim in our local spots. The Short One and I regularly worry about it, particularly when the weather is good.
What often comes across when I get asked about open water is a lack of proper understanding of the risks. That stretches to either extremes, one end that doesn’t see that there could be a risk to life of swimming outside, the other end that thinks you’ll definitely die if you give it a go.
Clearly The Short One and I haven’t died doing what we do so the bad end doesn’t ring true if you know what you’re doing. But, equally people do die each year as a result of getting into trouble in open water, either intentionally or accidentally, reflecting the lack of understanding that there could be a risk to life.
So, what am I getting at here? As an open water swimmer, a swimming teacher, open water lifeguard, occasional open water venue operator and general lover of water I want to make sure people understand the risks of doing what we do. The open water community is great at promoting the benefits and wonder of it all, there really are some inspiring stories and images out there but the details of how people do it often get missed. So, as we near the time of year when a lot of people start thinking about dipping their toe into some cooler outside waters I’m planning a series of blogs about the risks of open water swimming and what you can do to overcome them.
I have a few ideas lined up but if there’s anything in particular you want to know, shout up and I’ll add it to my list.
For anyone that’s sat through a Health and Safety briefing at work you’ll know how tedious safety guff can be, I hope with this I can break it down into manageable chunks based on personal experience and a whole load of publicly available info on the wonderful world wide web. Wish me luck!