Safe Outdoor Swimming #SOS

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by Maureen McCoy and Paul McCambridge

Outdoor swimming is a great year-round sport and growing fast in popularity, but this is not the controlled environment of the swimming pool. There are often no life-guards, the shore may be further away than you think and the water is much cooler; the average public pool temperature is around 27’ – 28’ Centigrade, the average sea temperature around Ireland ranges from 8’ to 18’C. Add to that, wind chill and water movement and in February temps can get really low (I have personally recorded swims at 3’C!) Lakes tend to warm up and cool down quicker, some getting to icy depths in winter.  

If you can swim, you can swim outdoors, just as with any other outdoor activity, wild swimming is only dangerous if swimmers take unnecessary risks. Common sense and a little preparation can make it safe and fun. 

Remember that outdoor conditions – rain, wind the tides, ambient temperatures – change all the time. You will never have the same swim twice. This is why swimmers keep coming back for more, because wild swimming is never boring!

NEVER SWIM ALONE

The number one rule of swimming; always swim with a buddy, it gives you each a safety back-up and it’s more fun as a shared experience.

BE VISIBLE

Wear a bright swimming cap to make yourself visible to any boats or craft in the area. All that will be visible is your tiny head, which any wave more than a few inches will hide, and your flying arms – unless you breast stroke, in which case only your head will be visible. This is where tow-floats come in handy – much more visible to craft. 

SWIM PARALLEL & CLOSE TO SHORE

You can get back to safety more easily if you swim parallel to shore than if you swim straight out to sea or to the middle of a lake. 

Swim Failure can happen to ANY swimmer, this is when the muscles are too cold to respond to the nerve signals and the swimmer can no longer keep themselves above water. If you stay close, in depth and swim with a buddy this will not end in tragedy.

GET OUT WHILE YOU STILL WANT MORE

Your body temperature will continue to drop as you swim and in cooler temperatures (below 10’C) you may soon risk Swim Failure (mentioned above). This starts to take effect in as little as 10 minutes. Add to that, the body continues to cool after swimming for a further 20 minutes. Get out wanting more and your whole experience will be a positive one!

WATCH THE WEATHER

Don’t try to swim in very rough conditions; no matter how strong you think you are the water is always more powerful. It is very difficult to breathe or navigate in choppy water. In FOG you will lose your bearings and will not be visible to others.

BE AWARE OF THE COLD

Recent findings state that around 60% of drownings in Britain and Ireland are due to Cold Shock Response the immediate physical response to sudden cold which causes involuntary inhalation. In waters around 15’ C it can be difficult for even strong swimmers to hold their breath when suddenly immersed. It takes an inhalation of only 1.5 litres of water to drown an adult.

The solution? DO NOT jump straight in – no matter how inviting the water looks. Instead follow the ritual of seasoned outdoor swimmers; get in slowly, wet your arms and face, lower yourself in gently, swim head up at first to acclimatise and control your breathing. Then, once you are no longer gasping or out of breath you may put your head down and speed off. 

Body temperature drops extremely quickly in the water and after swimming you may experience a further drop – after drop. Be sure to have warm clothes to change into, a hat and warm drink after your swim.

KNOW YOUR LIMITS

Know your own swimming ability, how well you can function in the cold and your knowledge of currents, tides and your ability to read the conditions. If you are less confident, swim with an experienced group or buddy, stay within your depth and close to an easy exit point. 

TOW FLOAT

Tow floats are NOT life-saving devices so do not rely on them for that purpose. They do, however, make a swimmer much more visible to other water traffic. They can also be used if you need a short rest on a long swim but remember that your temperature will drop very quickly when you are inactive in the water.

Again, the most important piece of equipment is yourself; your own competence and judgement.

ESSENTIAL KIT

A SENSE OF ADVENTURE! 

All outdoor swimmers have a little rebel streak in them. Celebrate that and enjoy the exploration of new places, or old ones seen from a new perspective.

#SWIMSENSE

It seems tedious to re-iterate but use your noggin! If your gut feeling is it’s a bad idea – then it probably is. Confidence is all very well but competence is key; know your own limitations in swimming ability and your capacity to deal with the cold. Seek advice from others and start gently, enjoy building your confidence, skill and power in the water.

DESIRABLE KIT 

SWIM SUIT

Essential at popular beaches but there are plenty more places where this is optional!… 

GOGGLES

Great for seeing clearly underwater, keep your eyeballs from feeling as if they are going to freeze and generally for seeing where you are going. They have a nasty habit of steaming up, though, so prepare them beforehand (with a smear of baby shampoo then wipe dry) or a generous amount of spit may be required.

CAP

Keeps hair out of your eyes, can help to minimise water in the ears (when pulled down enough) and provides a layer of insulation (there are times when you are glad of that few millimetres of silicone). Caps come in a range of types, styles and of course colours, if sea-swimming go for bright neon’s which are more likely to be seen. Silicone caps beat latex for thickness and insulation and are less likely to tear. Neoprene hoods tend to be favoured by triathletes and some winter swimmers, they give more insulation but swimmers used to caps may find the chin strap inhibiting.

CHANGING TOWEL

Keeps you decent on busy beaches and provides something of a windbreak. There are many on the market and budget is your only limitation – I still love my trusty hand-crafted version, modelled on the ones mum made for my brothers and me when we were small.

HOT WATER BOTTLE

Part of my essential winter kit, either already filled with my socks tucked inside the cover (heavenly!) or a spare flask of hot water ready to fill it when I get out. 

FLASK OF HOT BEVERAGE

Smooth, creamy and indulgent hot chocolate is a popular choice but any warm drink is a great way to warm up after a swim. Most will accompany this with a sweet snack.

THERMAL UNDIES

Not the most flattering but they are simply great. 

VERY WARM BOOTS

For after the swim, especially winter swims, a fleece-lined boot you can pull on is oh so nice – I’ve been known to stuff disposable hand warmers into my socks too!

BEST REASONS TO SWIM OUTDOORS

“Going swimming” now means a day trip to the beach or lake or mountains with a warm-up drink and scone after, or better still the pub where you can cosy up to the fire sipping Guinness. (Let us hope those times return!)

Boosts the immune system; this is not yet backed up by medical evidence but any year-round swimmer will tell you when they swim through the winter they simply don’t get a cold. (Since time of writing there has been increased research into health benefits of cold water swimming.)

Feel good factor – undoubtedly the best reason for doing it is that it’s fun!

Excerpt from Wild Swimming in Ireland 2016, ISBN 978-1-84889-280-4

Still to come

Tips for Winter Swimming

Tips for Night Swimming

Tips for Front Crawl 

7 – Swims Challenge!!! – Wicklow Hills

©Paul McCambridge / MAC Visual MediaUpper Glendalough

©Paul McCambridge / MAC Visual Media Upper Glendalough

Words by Maureen McCoy, Photos by Paul McCambridge

The Seven Lakes charity swim challenge started for us on the Friday afternoon. All packed with a bundle of towels, copious swimsuits and a huge parcel of snacks to keep us going for the two days, we headed south. It was a scorcher of a day which held great hopes for the weekend.

©Paul McCambridge / MAC Visual MediaSt Kevin's Way, Wicklow Gap

©Paul McCambridge / MAC Visual Media St Kevin’s Way, Wicklow Gap

Seven 1k swims in seven different loughs in the Wicklow Mountains could be made or broken by the fickle Irish weather.

Arriving in the early evening to the proposed first lough high in the Wicklow Gap we found a scenic parking spot to watch the sun go down over St Kevin’s Way. The evening light turned the land from brown to a deep glowing copper and the sky took on a hazy pink hue before the stars took the stage on a clear cool night.

©Paul McCambridge / MAC Visual MediaUpper Glendalough

©Paul McCambridge / MAC Visual Media Upper Glendalough

Early in the morning two Dublin Mini coaches pulled up and started spilling out swimmers with cries of “Where’s the lough then?” as they hauled bags from the rear.

Lough Nahanagan, a short drive below us past Danger and Keep Out signs, was perhaps not the wisest nor the most attractive place to venture for a swim! As we poured out of our coaches for this deliberation the barrier gate to the hydro-electricity plant was quickly and quietly drawn shut -security battening down the hatches against a group of rough-shod climate change protesters?

©Paul McCambridge / MAC Visual MediaLough Bray Upper

©Paul McCambridge

None of us felt inclined to find out first hand how far electricity can arc or test the effects of electricity and water on the human body and so the unanimous decision was to move on to the rather safer option of Upper Glendalough.

Pilling back on board the coaches, I guess to the relief of the plant management, we tootled down the valley to the Glen of Two Lakes, already welcoming its first visitors of the day.

Startling those morning sightseers, we stripped down to our swim gear with the mist clearing and the lough perfectly still, just a hint of haze along the valley.

©Maureen McCoy / MAC Visual MediaGer Carty, Glöndalough

©Maureen McCoy / MAC Visual Media, Glendalough

The plan; to swim out 500m and when the first swimmer hit that distance and turned, we would all return to shore – I’m not sure if those first swimmers heard that instruction as they hurtled off like steam trains down the lake towards the rising sun.

©Paul McCambridge / MAC Visual MediaUpper Glendalough

©Paul McCambridge  Upper Glendalough

Now fully wakened we padded and waddled our way along the boardwalk to the Lower lough for swim 2. Once again treating the well-dressed walkers and tourists with their chic hiking boots to the sight of a motley bunch of swimmers in a plethora of hoodies and dry-robes, towels wrapped around their lower halves and squelching flip flops.

©Paul McCambridge / MAC Visual MediaLower Glendalough

©Paul McCambridge / MAC Visual Media Lower Glendalough

The deer peeping out through the long grass, however, didn’t seem too perturbed at our fashion parade.

©Paul McCambridge / MAC Visual MediaLower Glendalough

©Paul McCambridge Lower Glendalough

Thankfully none of us caught a glimpse of the monster in the lough who used to prey on the congregation way back in St Kevin’s time.

©Paul McCambridge / MAC Visual MediaGlendalough Lower

©Paul McCambridge Glendalough Lower

Next to Vartry Reservoir and, standing on the stony shore as the wind picked up a little, we prepared for a cooler dip. A pleasant surprise when it felt warmer. We were all well into our stride now and headed off down the lake in companionable strokes, bright coloured hats a striking contrast against the grey water. On reaching 500m a circle was formed – feet in the centre, sculling to hold form; little kicks in the centre – “Right leg – up! Left leg -up! Two legs – up!” And…sink, before returning to shore – another 1k done.

©Paul McCambridge / MAC Visual MediaVartry Reservoir

©Paul McCambridge Vartry Reservoir

Side-note; when the water is low here you can see the stone walls underwater, the remains of the village that lay in the valley before it was flooded in 1863.

©Paul McCambridge / MAC Visual MediaVartry Reservoir

©Paul McCambridge  Vartry Reservoir

Back to Roundwood and a picnic lunch; 3 swims down – 4 to go.

©Paul McCambridge / MAC Visual MediaLough Dan

©Paul McCambridge  Lough Dan

Now, Lough Dan and what had been referred to as “A bit of a hike…” took the best part of an hour for us all to get down to the lake – with some grumblings. The water was low and as most started the long trek through the shallows, five of us went rogue and explored the river which flows into the lake. It started promisingly with us managing front crawl to the first bend. But from here on it was shallow, forcing us to scull, dog paddle and use the good old “crocodile crawl” to wend our way to the main lough. Still, we were off-grid and “venturing through the wilds…”

Once in the main lough we joined the group. Coursing through the blackness I could see tiny golden bubbles rising from my hands as I disturbed the silky water – from black, through gold to the surface grey sky above.

©Paul McCambridge / MAC Visual MediaCooper's Creek, Lough Dan

©Paul McCambridge Cooper’s Creek, Lough Dan

With not enough time and unlikely to get access to the Guinness lake, swim number 5 was re-scheduled to be a dip in the rockpool just below the bridge on our return walk. We had now re-named this river Coopers Creek. Clare once again led the way in, clambering over the rocks. Our circle was formed, this time perched on boulders and an attempt made at the syncro routine.

©Maureen McCoy / MAC Visual MediaCoopers Creek, nr Lough Dan

©Maureen McCoy, Coopers Creek, Lough Dan

For a final flourish, we each ducked into the small space behind the tiny fall to look out through the curtain of water streaming into the pool.

 

The first mizzle and rain of the day caught up with us on the steep climb back up to the road. Un-daunted we had only two swims to go – Upper and Lower Loughs Bray.

©Paul McCambridge / MAC Visual MediaLough Bray Upper

©Paul McCambridge Lough Bray Upper

These were the coldest of the day, the skies were grey and the light rain whisped through as we clambered inelegantly over rocks and stumbled our way in to each of these loughs.

©Paul McCambridge / MAC Visual MediaLough Bray Upper

©Paul McCambridge Lough Bray Upper

7 swims completed and still enough time to bathe with Fia’s Lake Soap from her native Sweden in preparation for our reservations at the Merry Ploughboy.

©Maureen McCoy/ MAC Visual MediaLough Bray Lower

©Maureen McCoy Lough Bray Lower

We all smelt quite lovely at dinner!

The 7 Lakes Swim Challenge drew two coachloads of seasoned outdoor swimmers, from Channel swimmers and Ice-milers to Wild swimmers, all ready for an adventurous day out with a great deal of craic raising money for Spina Bifida Hydrocephalus Ireland;

©Paul McCambridge / MAC Visual MediaLough Bray Lower

©Paul McCambridge / MAC Visual Media Lough Bray Lower

If you would like to donate, please click on the link;

https://www.justgiving.com/fundraising/marathonmantoironman

Thank you all for a brilliant day!

Thanks to all the organisers including; Fia, Sarah (Aqualine) who printed the T-shirts, the two Stephens, Kevin and the ever patient drivers Daniel and Liam.