Wild swimming this summer: hazards to avoid

Daniel Start, the author of Wild Swimming and Wild Guide Wales, on hazards to avoid when swimming in Britain’s seas, rivers and lakes and jumping into cold water this summer

In recent years wild swimming has enjoyed a revival. It began as a quirky hobby; but now thousands of swimmers of all age, including a large number of older women, are moving from swimming pools into open water, be it Britain’s seas, lakes and rivers. Around the country more than 175 mass swimming event are taking place in chilly open water this year. Each summer brings warnings of the dangers of taking to chilly, or even icy cold water and newspaper reports of drownings.

To stay safe, never swim alone and remember, if this is your first time, stay or swim close to the shore. There’s nothing inherently dangerous about wild swimming, but cold water does reduce your swimming ability, at least until you get used to it. So stay close to the shore and increase your range slowly. Cold water will dramatically decrease your range at first, count on being able to swim a tenth of the distance you can in a warm pool, so practise in a safe zone and increase your range slowly. If it’s your first time swimming in cold water, enter the water gradually to see how your body reacts – beware of ‘cold shock’ which can bring on hyperventilation.

If it’s your first time swimming in cold water, enter the water gradually to see how your body reacts – beware of ‘cold shock’ which can bring on hyperventilation.

When you get out, it can take longer than you think to warm up, so have plenty of clothing ready, and ideally head straight off on another walk or run.

Currents can be especially powerful directly under large waterfalls or weirs – never jump directly into the tumult below big waterfalls or weirs. In the sea, don’t swim from headlands unless you understand tidal currents, and don’t swim in high surf conditions – off shore rip currents can form around cove edges and along sandy beaches, in between the surf breaks, and they can carry swimmers out to behind the surf line (where they then dissipate). If this happens, exit the current by swimming parallel to the shore, and come back in on the surf. The same is true if you are caught in a fast river –swim to the shore or side where the water will be calmer.

Other health hazards can include blue-green algae, sometimes found in lowland lakes in hot summers (best avoided as it can create a rash), swimmer’s itch (if you spend a lot of time wading through pond weed where snails breed) and, in extremely rare cases (more chance of being knocked over by a bus), Weil’s disease. This latter illness is caught from rat urine, mostly around urban waterways. It enters the skin through open cuts and wounds (wear a waterproof plaster if you have a cut). It is easily treated with antibiotics but can be very serious if left to develop untreated – see your doctor if you develop flu like fever within a week of wild swimming.

Wild swimming is a superb way to break down barriers and build an instant sense of comradeship. You will be feeling fantastic when you get out, and keen to go back in, so plan your route to take in a few more dips too! Your first time wild swimming is guaranteed to be one of the most memorable days this summer.

Wild swimming is a superb way to break down barriers and build an instant sense of comradeship. You will be feeling fantastic when you get out, and keen to go back in, so plan your route to take in a few more dips too! Your first time wild swimming is guaranteed to be one of the most memorable days this summer.

Britain is blessed with a fantastic range of locations for swimming. Cornwall, Dorset and Pembrokeshire are famous for coves, sea caves and rock arches. There are many freshwater venues too, from the tarns of Wales, waterfalls pools of the Lakes and wooded lakes of Sussex.” Writers as diverse as Rupert Brooke, Virginia Woolf, D.H. Lawrence, Thomas Mann and Shelley have ‘sought a cold water high’

All wild-dippers know the natural endorphin high that raises mood, elates the senses and creates an addictive urge to dive back in. However the world seemed before a swim, it looks fantastic afterwards.

Daniel Start is the author of Wild Guide: Wales (Wild Things Publishing, £16.99), published 2018, also available on Amazon

Daniel Start

Daniel Start

Daniel Start is an award-winning photographer and author of Wild Swimming, (£16.99, Wild Things Publishing) www.wildswimming.co.uk
Daniel Start

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With around 18,000 CSOs (Combined Stormwater Overflows) discharging into English & Welsh rivers there is also a significant health risk of settled raw sewage at many locations.