September 01, 2020

Open Water must be respected as an uncontrollable and unpredictable swimming environment, but by following our Open Water Swimming Safety tips you can always enjoy the water safely.

Key Open Water Swimming Safety Points

Understand effect of weather & tides

· Weather will affect each body of water differently, depending on their geographical location. It’s important to know how weather affects your swimming spot, and if it is tidal, how tides affect it.

· Generally, it’s safest to swim no more than an hour either side of high or low tide. This is when the flow of the current should be at its weakest. However, all locations have their own dynamics, so it’s best to research, and ask local safety teams or experienced open water swimmers.

· If there are official weather warnings for wind or rain – do not swim – and heed any warnings from lifeguards, local councils, the RNLI and Coastguard.

Learn about rip currents

· Rip currents are strong, narrow currents that flow from the shoreline, through the waves out to sea. They exist to take all the water brought to shore by waves, back out to sea, and are most common on beaches suitable for surfing.

· Rip currents are not always easy to spot, but generally present as a calmer, deeper channel going out to sea, with breaking waves either side. If you end up in this channel, try to remain calm, and either swim parallel to shore until you exit the current, or raise your hand directly upwards to attract attention from the lifeguards.

· All lifeguarded Irish beaches that have rip currents, will have information about said rip currents at the lifeguard hut and/or on beach notice boards. Please read these, swim between the lifeguard flags, parallel to shore, and only when a lifeguard is on duty.

For more information on rip currents, here is renown surf scientist Dr Rob Brander’s guide to surviving rip currents.

Bring someone with you

· It’s the most important rule of open water swimming: do not swim by yourself. Whoever you bring with you doesn’t need to get in the water, but they should keep an eye on you, should you need any help.

Make yourself visible

· Wear a brightly-coloured silicon hat that is Pink, Orange, Yellow or Green. Every other colour in the water ranges from full camouflage to barely visible.

- It's also strongly recommended to wear a brightly-coloured tow-float. These are flotation devices that attach to your waist, then float behind on a leash as you swim. They come in a huge range of sizes and significantly increase your visibility, while also providing you with a float to rest on. Some also have pockets for you to store things, like water, snacks and medicines.

Get in slowly to avoid cold water shock

· All Irish waters are cold enough to cause cold water shock just about every day of the year. Those who swim regularly in these waters can acclimatise and reduce the reactions, but if that isn’t you, you can avoid cold water shock by entering the water slowly.

· Walk in up to your hips, splash your top half and face, then walk the rest of the way in. As you enter, you will gasp and your breathe will quicken rapidly. Take some breaststroke strokes, keeping your head out of the water and focus on controlling your breathe. Once your breathe is under control, keep moving steadily parallel to, or towards shore, and don’t go out of your depth. After a few minutes, it’s time to get out and warm up!

· Next time you will be able to get your breathing under control quicker, and swim for longer.

For more information on cold water shock, here is the Royal Life Saving Society with Cold Water Shock: The Facts.

Know the signs of hypothermia

· Hypothermia is not related to cold water shock and creeps up gradually. It occurs when the body’s core temperature drops below 37C, and can first present as persistent shivering, reduced dexterity in hands, and difficulty using lips and tongue to speak.

· Experienced open water swimmers in Ireland will regularly experience those mild symptoms, perhaps first feeling their hands stiffen in the water, then other symptoms after they have exited.

· To avoid these symptoms or worse, keep moving in the water at all times, get out as soon as you feel you are getting colder, and dress as quickly as you can.

For comprehensive information on hypothermia symptoms, prevention measures and remedies, check out the HSE’s Preventing Hypothermia guide.

Wear a watch to monitor time in water

· It’s good practice to wear a watch in the water so you do not lose track of how long you have been in. It’s a particularly important practice if you are new to swimming in Ireland’s cold waters, or an experienced swimmer dipping in winter.

Swim parallel to shore

· No matter your experience, it is always safest to swim parallel to shore. Taking this route makes you most visible to those on land, tends to keep you furthest away from motorised boats and jet skis, makes your own navigating easier, and gives you quicker exiting options in the event of an emergency.

Bring extra layers for after and a hot drink, or soup

· There are few days in Ireland when you will not be glad of having brought an extra layer and a hot drink to swimming with you. Your body temperature is likely to have dropped a degree or two after your swim, so what you arrived in might not be warm enough to get you back to normal, so with an extra layer and a hot sup, you’ll be right as rain in no time.

Always respect the Open Water, know your own limits and listen to advice from officials regarding weather and water conditions.

Open Water Swimming Safety Checklist

Above are our general Open Water Swimming safety tips, but we’ve also put together this Open Water Swimming Safety checklist. Even the most experienced open water swimmers will mentally check off this list each time they go swimming. Make a habit of doing the same.

Before you go

  1. Know where you are going to swim – what location?
  2. Check the weather – are there official warnings? How do the winds affect this location?
  3. Check the tides – remember it is best to swim up to an hour either side of high or low tide, but some locations are not suitable at certain tides, particularly low tides. Download a tide app.
  4. Book a swim buddy – always take at least one person with you, even if they are just going to keep an eye on you from shore.
  5. Valuables – plan how you will keep these safe. Some tips in our kit list below.
  6. Tell someone remaining on shore where you are going and how long you will be – do this every time you leave the shore.
  7. Remember to pack extra layers for afterwards – and a hot drink or soup

At the swim spot

  1. Check lifeguard information – it is recommended that you only swim at lifeguarded spots, that way you will always have safety cover, professionals to ask advice, and clear guidance about water conditions that day.
  2. Assess conditions – are there any warnings? Is it safe for you, not any other swimmers, to get in, swim, and get out?
  3. Beware of strong currents and underwater hazards – can you notice any? Can you ask another swimmer who has already been in?
  4. Do not swim in fast flowing water – this is easiest to see in a river, but the sea can have fast currents too.
  5. Decide on a route – it is always safest to swim parallel to shore and within designated swimming zones. If you are dipping, not swimming, instead decide how long you will stay in.
  6. Make a plan to check in with each other at points along the route – this keeps the group together and helps everyone keep an eye on each other.
  7. Get in slowly to avoid cold water shock – jumping or diving might be great craic, but getting in slowly is the best option in cold water, particularly during winter and at new locations.

After swimming

  1. Take care exiting – put your goggles up, go slowly, get your land legs back.
  2. Prioritise dressing – chit-chat and drink tea only when you are fully dressed.
  3. Get moving – you will warm up quicker if you go for a brisk walk.
  4. Do not drive/cycle before you have recovered – shivering, numb hands and feet, and ice cream head are not conducive to safe driving or cycling. Go for that walk, or stick on the car heaters for a few minutes before you drive away.

Recommended Open Water Swimming Kit-List

To make Open Water Swimming safe, and maximise the enjoyability of the experience, there are some essentials you need in your kit bag.

Essential Open Water Swimming Kit:

Brightly-coloured silicon swim hat – bright yellow, green, pink, or orange will make sure other water users and those on land can more easily see you. Any other colour will make you invisible.

Tow-float – these now come in a range of sizes, from very small, to big enough to carry clothes for a weekend away! They are brightly-coloured flotation devices that you attach to yourself via a waistband. They float behind you on a leash as you swim, providing a significant increase in visibility. You can also use them to rest on, and some allow you to carry water or food, equipment, or even vital medicines, like an inhaler.

Clear and tinted goggles – having both ensures you will be able to see where you are going, and maybe what’s under the water, whenever and wherever you swim.

Ear plugs – anyone who swims in water below 19C, which in Ireland is every body of water almost every day of the year, can develop surfer’s ear. This occurs when a bony growth develops within the ear, and can lead to hearing loss. Wearing ear plugs prevents surfer’s ear, and there are plenty of options, including those that still allow you to hear quite normally. More information on Surfer’s Ear from Dr Seamus Boyle.

Changing robe – any robust material, that can dry you, can be made into a changing robe. Throwing a changing robe over your head, or zipping one up and pulling your arms inside, creates a warm, private space to get dressed quickly – out of the dreaded wind!

Optional Open Water Swimming Kit

Wetsuit – FINA Open Water swimming rules state that if the water temperature at an elite open water venue is under 18C, wetsuits must be worn, and they are mandatory for Irish triathlons. A good open water swimming wetsuit, that fits you well, will keep you warm, provide extra buoyancy and allow you to swim for longer and warm up quicker after swimming.

Neoprene swim hat, gloves and/or boots – even during summer months, Irish swimmers often wear neoprene swimming hats, gloves or boots for added warmth and enjoyment. If getting a neoprene hat, just remember to get a brightly-coloured one, or put a bright silicon hat over the top to ensure you are visible in the water.

Swimming shoes – for those that don’t like pebble beaches, or swim off rocky shores, or are worried about what is on the waterbed, get some swimming shoes to wear while you swim.

Changing mat – great for keeping you off undesirable surfaces like sand, mud, and cold concrete. Get a small one that dries fast.

Thermometer – if you really want to know the temperature of the water in your location, invest in a thermometer and test the water below the surface before you get in.

Useful open water swimming accessories

Drybag – chances are, one day you’ll go swimming and while you’re in, it will rain on your not-waterpoof bag. Invest in a drybag to either use as your swim bag, or put in your swim bag to keep things dry. Just remember they aren’t breathable, so be extra careful to take things out when you get home, rinse and hang up – otherwise black mould will arrive.

Surf lock – not all visitors to swim spots are as nice as you, some see it as an opportunity to steal bags, phones, car keys, and cars. A surf lock allows you to keep everything in your car, then lock your car key to your car in a coded box. You could also get a simple code lock for the zips on your bag.

Waterproof phone/key holder – alternatively you could take your valuables into the water with you in a waterproof holder. These can be put around your neck and down your swim suit (unless you’re a man, sorry guys!) or wetsuit, or in a tow-float.

Want some extra tips for dipping in open water in winter? Tips for Winter Dipping in Ireland.