Cooling off? Here's how to stay safe around water

·6 min read
It's important to know the risks of cold water shock. (Getty Images)
It's important to know the risks of cold water shock. (Getty Images)

We've waited quite some time for the sun to get its hat on this year, and now the mercury is rising, many have been rushing to cool off in the nearest lake, river or sea. 

But in the quest to chill down, we can forget how important it is to stay safe in open water. And the consequences can be horrific. 

According to stats from Royal Life Saving Society UK (RLSS UK) more than 400 people accidentally drown in the UK and Ireland every year – and many more suffer life-changing injuries after getting into difficulties in open water.

The RLSS says all UK bodies of water presents hazards and though they believe that being able to swim is the first defence against drowning, water has invisible dangers like strong currents, sudden changes in depth and temperature, debris and cold water shock, which can catch out even the most seasoned of open water swimmers.

RLSS UK’s Drowning Prevention Week campaign (19-26 June) is urging the public to minimise the risks by taking charge of their safety this year and learning some basic water safety skills before they venture near the waves (or ripples). 

“The UK’s beautiful waterways should be places where everyone feels at ease, and can take pleasure from their surroundings, whatever their age," says Lee Heard, Charity Director for the RLSS UK.

“The Royal Life Saving Society UK exists to ensure everyone can enjoy water safely and we believe every drowning is preventable.

“Learning how to stay safe around water, understanding the risks and knowing what to do in an emergency will make sure everyone has a great day out, and come home with memories to cherish."

Read more: Why wild water swimming has become so popular this year

Experts recommend swimming on a lifeguarded beach. (Getty Images)
Experts recommend swimming on a lifeguarded beach. (Getty Images)

The RLSS is concerned that with millions of children missing out on curriculum-mandated swimming lessons, coupled with school holidays, staycations, good weather and lockdown lifting, we could see a rise in accidental drownings.

Around 85% of accidental drownings happen at open water sites. Many of these occur due to a lack of knowledge and understanding of open water safety.

With that in mind here's the expert-backed tips for staying water-safe this summer…

Beware of cold water shock

Ross Macleod, water safety manager at the RNLI says one of the biggest risks at this time of year is cold water shock. 

"It's really important for people to remember the air temperature can warm up really quickly, but water temperature will take quite a long time to heat up. 

"This can cause a real risk of cold water shock, which is a physiological reaction caused by a sudden change in temperature."

Macleod says the sudden change in temperature can send your heart rate soaring and may cause you to lose control of your breathing as well.

"This can be really dangerous in the water environment because if you can't control your breathing, you can take water into your lungs," he adds. 

"In very extreme situations, if that involuntary gasp comes when under the water, it can lead to people not resurfacing again because they take a lungful of water."

Macleod says there is also a small risk that for some people who may be unwittingly suffering with underlying heart conditions, the sudden shock can send them into cardiac arrest. 

The only way to mitigate against cold water shock is regular exposure to cold water.

"While cold water swimmers will build up some form of resistance to cold water shock by repeatedly exposing themselves to cold water over an extended period of time, if you’re not in the water that often you need to be really careful," Macleod explains. 

Read more: Cold weather exercise: Health benefits and risks explained

One of the key things you can do is acclimatise slowly, so walk into the water where possible - don’t jump head first, but just let your body get used to the water.

"Even better is to wear a wetsuit, this not only reduces the risk of cold water shock but also helps you float because wetsuits are made of neoprene, which is a very buoyant material and that will help you stay afloat if you do get into trouble," he continues. 

Watch: Girl rescued by RNLI after drifting out to sea on a dinghy

Be mindful of rip currents

Rip currents are currents of water typically flowing from the shoreline back out to sea. They are commonly formed by a build-up of water on the beach caused by wave and tidal motion, but can also form where an estuary runs into the sea.

If you get caught in a rip current the RLSS UK recommends the following:

  • Call for help

  • If you have a buoyant aid (like a surfboard or inflatable), keep hold of it

  • Do not swim against the current

  • Swim parallel to the shore – this makes sure that you are swimming out of and not back into the rip current

  • Once out of the rip current, swim towards the shore, being careful to avoid being drawn back in by feeder currents

People are taking to open water to cool off, but there are some risks. (Getty Images)
People are taking to open water to cool off, but there are some risks. (Getty Images)

Remember you don't know what's under the water

One of the real risks of jumping in from height, often known as 'tombstoning', is not knowing how deep the water is or what is beneath the surface. 

"In a river environment or a canal, there could be currents which could sweep you away to deeper waters," Macleod explains. 

"In coastal environments, you’ve got the tide - so a place that may have been safe enough to jump at high tide can at low tide be extremely dangerous when the tide may have dropped a metre or two. That’s when you get the risk of impact injuries."

"The main advice is it’s never a good idea to jump from height into the water, we’d much rather you went in slowly at a supervised location, ideally a lifeguarded beach," Macleod explains. 

If you are going to jump in, he says you really need to understand what's underneath and have acclimatised to the temperature of the water first.

Read more: The UK's best nudist beaches revealed: Why more Brits will be in the buff this summer

What to do if you get into difficulties

The RNLI has been running a campaign called Float to Live, which has already helped to save 25-30 lives. 

"It’s basically a relaxation technique so if you are unlucky enough to get caught up in some sort of difficulty, lie back, extend your arms and legs like a starfish, and just rest and relax in the water until you get control of your breathing or you calm down," Macleod explains. 

"This technique is really to try and encourage people not to panic because panic can be one of the biggest killers in the water."

Macleod suggests those people who do get into difficulty should try to rest and relax until they've got control of their breathing and gather their thoughts which allows them to swim to safety. 

"Or you can just continue to float until help arrives or someone calls for help on your behalf," he adds. 

Watch: 'It erases problems, it's like being a child again' why one woman in her 60s took up wild swimming

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