Safe Cold Water Swimming
People taking to the waters for exercise or just to enjoy the natural environment. The current water temperatures in Irish lakes are not much above freezing, and many smaller lakes have frozen over. While the sea is slightly warmer, it’s still below 10ºC. These temperatures can lead to rapid physical effects, including hypothermia, especially in those unused to, and unprepared for, the physical effects of cold water. Staying safe while cold water swimming or dipping is not a trivial exercise and requires planning and preparation.
Cold water swimming is generally defined as swimming in waters below 15ºC. Personally, I find anything below 12ºC feels really wintry and when it goes below 10 degrees it can start to hurt, especially without thermal gloves and socks or shoes. Winter in Ireland can see temperatures dropping to around 3ºC in lakes – Lough Derg measured 3.1ºC a few days ago and, if anything, it’s become colder since then. So why do it? Hard to say, endorphins maybe, the acclimatisation effects, taking on a challenge or just enjoying the environment. The physical exercise is also beneficial, but when it dips to 3ºC or 4ºC you won’t want to be swimming too far.
Some tips to stay safe when swimming in cold water:
- Plan ahead. Know the likely water temperature and your own capabilities. If you are new to cold water swimming get a doctor’s opinion – some medical conditions are not suited to exposure to cold water. Arrange to meet other swimmers or dippers and avoid swimming alone.
- Bring the right equipment, this may include:
- Wet suit.
- Neoprene hat, gloves, boots/socks designed for cold water protection.
- A hot water bottle and a flask of hot tea, coffee or soup for after the swim.
- Dry towel and clothes – preferably plenty of layers.
- Water proof watch – you need to keep an eye on the time spent in the water.
- Float – brightly coloured, so you can be seen and it can be used as a buoyancy aid if necessary.
- Clothes that can be easily and quickly put on with cold hands.
I know very capable swimmers, including channel swimmers, who may not wear a wet suit or neoprene gloves etc., but will NOT swim alone or without a float, and ALWAYS monitor their time in the water.
- Stay warm until you get into the water – the warmer you are getting in the longer it will take to cool down your core body temperature.
- Take your time getting in – jumping or diving in can cause cold water shock and debilitate you. Cold water shock can cause hyperventilation, loss of strength and muscle control, and potentially drowning.
- Monitor your condition in the water and stay a safe distance from an exit point. Hypothermia can debilitate and is potentially fatal. If you start to shiver, feel excessively cold or feel a lack of energy, you may be starting to experience hypothermia. This can lead on to uncontrollable shivering, loss of muscle co-ordination and confusion.
- Get to know your own reactions to cold water – and don’t wait for hypothermia symptoms to get out of the water and get dry and warm. Hypothermia can worsen after you leave the water as the cold blood close to the skin starts to circulate to the core.
- Once out of the water reduce heat loss and get warm as soon as possible. You may not feel that cold but hypothermia symptoms may not start until 10 minutes or so after you leave the water. Don’t hang around, you can chat when you’re dressed and warm(er).
- Pile on the layers of clothes and when dry and dressed take some of the hot drink you have thoughtfully brought with you and grab the hot water bottle.
These tips are focused on the effects of cold water, but always be aware of other sea, river or lake hazards, including choppy waters, icy or slippery exit points, strong currents, encroaching darkness or reduced visibility, and the potential hazards from the human body, such as cramp or SIPE (swimming induced pulmonary oedema). Some, if not all, of these will be made worse in cold water. Be prepared, don’t swim alone, know your limits and stick to them.
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