This guide is designed to give a brief introduction to swimming in open water and to provide parents of Dorset club swimmers with information that will enable their child to enjoy a fun, safe experience. There are a number of organisations that can provide valuable information and guidance on swimming in open water, particularly in the sea, such as the RNLI, or the Royal Life Saving Society (RLSS), Dorset County ASA, East Dorset Open Water SC (EDOW), as well as qualified swim coaches and swim teachers or club open water leads.
Open water swimming does not have a lot of the safety features enjoyed on a daily basis by club or recreational swimmers who usually swim or train in a pool, for example warm water kept at a regular temperature, filtered and chemically cleansed, changing rooms and showers, or a regular ambient temperature. Open water includes, Lakes, Reservoirs, Rivers and the Sea. These venues have no walls or depth restrictions, no lines to follow and are open to the elements, and you will swim with other sea life such as fish and jellyfish. However, don’t be put off. Provided you follow some sensible guidelines and safety measures, open water swimming can be a fantastic experience for your child.
A swimming or triathlon wetsuit, as opposed to a surfing suit is the best option, as it will keep you warm, buoyant, and allow the necessary shoulder and arm movement. A tri suit or swimsuit should be worn under the wetsuit.
A pair of goggles, and decide whether you need tinted lenses to shade the sun or clear lenses to better aid vision.
A swim hat is a must and it should be a bright colour to aid visibility. When the water is cold, some swimmers opt for a neoprene skull cap or bonnet to limit heat loss from the head although they can’t be worn in competition. Some swimmers also prefer to wear neoprene gloves and boots/socks early in the season while the water is still cold.
Warm clothing for before and afterwards is a must. Remember a child’s body temperature continues to drop for 25 minutes or so after they have left the water in chilly conditions, so hands and feet may be cold but the core temperature within the torso is the important bit. Something to eat and drink should also be taken for afterwards.
A beach tent, dry robe or similar garment is a good idea. Your club or organisation should have policies contained within their risk assessment and safeguarding procedures to cater for changing at the beach or lakeside.
Dorset beaches are some of the safest in the country with high levels of cleanliness and safety cover. However, open water wherever you go can be hazardous and life threatening if not treated with respect, so here are some of the basics.
Never swim alone. Swim with an organised group led by a qualified coach who should be insured and must abide by an up-to-date risk assessment, emergency action plan and child safeguarding policy.
Never swim in conditions such as rough seas, thunder storms, or reduced visibility such as heavy rain or fog. Surf and swell heights can be assessed and predicted in advance of the session by visiting relevant websites such as “Magic Seaweed”. Surf and swell are not the same; your child can easily disappear momentarily from view in a trough if the swell is too severe.
Don’t swim unsupervised outside of the safety zone which is usually marked by yellow buoys; water powered craft are not allowed within this zone (speed boats and swimmers don’t mix).
Where possible swim within zones patrolled by lifeguards.
Especially in early season, keep a close eye on your child’s demeanour and behaviour in the water, as what may be an acceptable water temperature to one child may be freezing and debilitating to another. Gradual familiarisation, sometimes even by going in for only ten minutes at a time, is the best way to go. If your child goes quiet, is clearly unhappy or shivering get them out and warm them up, as there is no place for macho misplaced toughness in this environment. As a rough guide the coldest months in Dorset for sea swimming are February and March at 10C or 11C. After this the water warms gradually to around 12C in May, 13-15C in June and 16-18C July and August. The temperature howeve varies and can be slightly warmer as you get into shallow water.
There are jellyfish off the south coast that can sting and which is relatively mild, but it is nevertheless best to avoid them. More common are weaver fish which lie on the sea bed and sting when stood upon. This can cause a burning sensation and hurts, but the application of hot water will ease the pain which is temporary. Beach lifeguards are knowledgeable on this type of occurrence and can advise treatment.
Rip tides are best explained as a narrow channel of water that moves out to sea at a fast pace caused by sand bars on the sea bed or other physical features such as groynes or piers, which effectively force a narrow stream of water to move faster than the general tide. Although not common, if you do find yourself in one it is important not to panic and do not try to swim back to the beach by swimming against the current; swim instead at right angles to the current parallel with the beach. Most rip tides are only several metres wide and, once you are clear of it, you can swim back to the beach.
As close as you can without the interference and buffeting caused by incoming surf. Swim parallel to the beach and follow the instructions of your coach.
Properly organised sessions will have the necessary safety measures in place to cater for a swimmer in difficulty, such as beach walkers trained to watch the swimmer and look out for their safety, coaches or safety personnel who are able to enter the water and effect a safe rescue (ie using a throwline) or, better still, a canoeist providing safety cover.
Safety cover and equipment will be determined by the requirements of risk assessment. Children and adult helpers should be adequately briefed on what to do in such circumstances before the swimmers enter the water, and everyone should be clear on signals and instructions and what they mean. Communication is key in such environments.
Dorset has some of the cleanest safest beaches worldwide (see the local authority websites for information and star grading system). Contamination in rivers, lakes and the sea however will be at its greatest immediately after heavy rain, and it is advisable when swimming in open water to cover cuts or grazes with a waterproof plaster.
Especially in early season (April/May) acclimatise gradually by starting with short sessions and building up the water time session by session. Before starting a session allow your child to walk into the water gradually talking with friends. Get them to splash their faces with cold water as the face is very sensitive to temperature changes and by splashing the face the “cold shock” experienced at the start of a session will be less bracing.
Triathlons and Aquathlons (swim-run or swim-bike-run events) are held all over the country between April and October. ASA Championships events such as County, Regional and National events are held each year in June and July. Speak with a club official or visit the Dorset County ASA or ASA South West website for entry information.
Race tactics, body position, stroke adaptation (if necessary), sighting, drafting, deep water starts, beach starts, turning around buoys and spatial awareness are all recognised open water skills.
If you have further questions or queries or want advice on any aspect of open water swimming please contact your coach or open water lead.