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To Swim or Not To Swim....

In the current climate this may just be the question that has been playing on many Open Water Swimmers’ minds in the last week….

As I was struggling a little with this dilemma, I thought I’d write down my thinking to help me gather myself and hopefully come to some conclusions…

Last week, the Government announced some changes to the England Lockdown conditions (1) which meant that Open Water Swimming was again on the table…. BUT, not necessarily Open Water Venues. This led quickly to announcements from RLSS (2) about important safety reminders in open water. RLSS, Swim England and British Triathlon then published their joint statement/advice (3), (hosted on the SH2OUT website) and then came information from STA (4) and more info from HM Gov about a return to outdoor sports (5). Then other bodies such as Outdoor Swimmer Magazine and the Outdoor Swimming Society put out various comments and statements with their views and advice… Clearly I needed several cups of tea, a pack (or two) of shortbread biscuits and my reading glasses!

As I was wading through the various documents my phone went ping and FB pages for the local lakes in which I usually swim started to go a bit bonkers…. Would they open? could they open? would it be safe? How could it be managed? Who would be allowed to swim? What was the water temperature? And then came the opinions….. Healthy discussion and sharing of thoughts is always a good thing in my mind. Seeing another perspective, listening to another view, considering something you may not have thought of…it can only help to inform one’s opinion - either by changing your mind or reinforcing your original belief! Sadly, not everyone was able to express their opinions kindly and calmly and I was deeply upset to see some comments flying around which were unnecessarily abrasive and borderline rude. Swimmers were getting twitchy about their passion, and I could certainly understand that… Like many, I am desperate to get back in the water, to say the least.

To say there was controversy would be an understatement…. So to help me clarify my own thinking and maybe support others in their decision making… I threw everything down on paper…

Everyone agrees on one thing it seems…. If you haven’t ever been Open Water Swimming, now is not the time to try it. It has it’s own inherent dangers and considerations and at a time when Social Distancing measures remain strictly in place, you don’t want to be in a potentially dangerous position, risking your own safety and that of anyone who has to come to your assistance… so for newbies, sorry folks, OWS is off the table at the moment.

The water is still cold…. Relatively. For those of us who swim all year round and have been known to crack the ice in order to get a swim in, 15 degrees is pretty balmy but even most of us have been out of the water for 2 months or more. For anyone who hasn’t swum since last summer or since their holiday in warmer climates, then 15 degrees is going to feel cold. Everyone needs time to acclimatise properly and this doesn’t happen overnight… 15 degrees is cold enough for anyone to get into trouble with cold water shock and potentially with hypothermia.

Many bodies of Open Water are not lifeguarded and there is no safety cover to hand. Emergency Services are already stretched and response times may be longer than normal. Even the most experienced of swimmers can get into difficulty from one moment to the next. Although the Government has said it is ‘allowed’, “is it the socially responsible thing to do?” (RLSS/SE/BT document (3) below). Most organised Open Water Venues who normally have safety cover on site were still closed last week although at least 2 of the lakes closest to home are now open for swimming again.

Social Distancing remains in place. Which means that if you do swim in a river, in the sea or an unsupervised venue, you have to be self sufficient in every way. You should always swim with a swim buddy either in the water with you or on the bank/shore where they can spot for you throughout your swim. So for now that needs to be someone from your household…. On a separate but equally important note, thankfully I can do my own wetsuit up without assistance, but many find this tricky! And what of others who you might meet in the water/on the bank/on the beach? Can you rely on them keeping their distance?

If you have to be rescued, this is pretty tricky to do whilst adhering to the social distancing Guidelines…. It’s not impossible if you’re conscious, but what if you are an unconscious casualty? It becomes pretty impossible. What if someone then has to give CPR? I am aware that the Resus Council has issued guidelines on CPR in various settings (6) and especially with regard to the use of rescue breaths and listening for breathing, but rescue breaths in drowning victims are key part of the process…. Even with a face shield, anyone who has to give them risks putting their casualty at risk as well as themselves (depending on the type of face shield/valve etc involved).

It isn’t essential… OK… this one is really tricky…. For some swimmers who rely on their Open Water ‘fix’ for their own Mental Health and Wellbeing, or who rely on the colder water for pain relief and to support mobility in numerous chronic health conditions, one could argue that actually it is pretty high up there on the ‘essential’ list. But for most of us, we can get our buzz fix elsewhere and we know we won’t actually come to long term harm if we have to wait a bit longer before we can get back in the water.

From a practical perspective, Covid-19 hasn’t gone away, people are still dying every day, including in our nearest hospital. Travel restrictions have been relaxed in England but for me a visit to the lake is a 50 mile round trip. It’s not an insignificant journey, although it is one I have happily made many many times.

And finally as I cannot yet go and see my father or spend time with more than one of my friends, it seems strangely counter-intuitive to go swimming at a venue where there will be a number of random other people whose isolation/lockdown history is unknown to me. NHS workers and front line staff continue to ask people to stay home, and as one of my friends put it ‘The government relaxation of Lockdown regulations doesn’t mean the pandemic is over, it just means that there’s space for you in ICU’.

Of course, everyone has to make their own decisions and as a coach whose aim it is to get as many people safely and sensible enjoying open water swimming as possible, then I am truly grateful to the lake operators who have found a way to open again this week and to give swimmers that choice. Whatever everyone decides, I hope they do so based on current information and guidelines and that they ensure that they and those around them are safe out there…

So…. Will you see me in the water this week? I’m hopeful it won’t be too much longer…

Documents cited:

4) STA Guidance:

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