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When Swimming Has Scared Me
Safety is a big topic in swimming, open water swimming in particular, and it should be. Swimming will always have its dangers, even in the most controlled of settings. As regular swimmers most of the time we will be comfortable in the water, hopefully aware, but not threatened. But on occasions we will sense danger more acutely; sometimes due to a real problem other due to something more superficial.

Coming up with a simple set or rules that work in all circumstances, or maybe more accurately, for all people would run to many pages and be impossible to articulate as a simple safety message. This can often result in very general warnings focussed purely on the dangers of open water. As swimmers we may scoff and think some of those warmings aren’t realistic; factually inaccurate/ I’d swim there/ in those conditions etc, and that is probably true for us. But, regular open water swimmers aren’t the majority, many people can’t swim and others won’t have swum for 10, 20 years, for these people maybe a pool or an open water venue with close supervision will be the best setting, at least until they have developed their (open water) swimming skills.

From a swimming perspective I am one of the lucky ones, I learnt to swim from around 5 and was swimming regularly through 18. After all this time in the water I was a strong swimmer, maybe not fast compared to those from a pool racing background, but comfortable in the water and swimming was an everyday thing (technically every week but you know what I’m saying). As an adult there have been some periods when I have swum every few days but there have also some gaps where I haven’t swum for a few years. However, I’ve always been in the position where I know I can swim, and swim a long distance if I want. Maybe not everyone can say they took a break from swimming for a few years and in their first swim back they swam 10k (walking up the stairs to my flat the next day wasn’t pleasant), but many of us will have that long history in the water and know the feeling of safety that can come with it. We are the swimming elite, maybe not in the racing sense, but compared to the general public the water is an arena where we can thrive, while others will struggle.

So, we’re supermen, or superwomen, completely invulnerable and the rules don’t apply to us. Clearly nonsense! Drownings of swimmers may be thankfully rare, especially compared to figures for people entering the water for other reasons, but things can always be improved.

It is true that the simplistic “don’t swim in open water” type message isn’t aimed at us, but instead we must take more responsibility for ourselves and fellow swimmers. We need to be able to make a realistic assessment of our ability, water conditions (flow, currents, temperature), entry/exit points and what, if any, safety cover is on hand. Sometimes all this responsibility will fall squarely on you, other times it will be shared with other swimmers or the safety team at a venue/ event, but you always have to make the final call; is it right to be in the water at this point in time and space.

So, what is an acceptable risk. Even at some organised events I’ve looked up and thought I’m completely on my own here, and if I’m honest this isn’t something that has bothered me at the time. It’s true that if I was to instantaneously loose conscience I’d be in trouble, but if you think about it even in a small well controlled space you can’t be watched every second and downing doesn’t take long. Ban all swimming, I hear. No! Risk will never be eliminated and we take this type of risk every day, loosing consciousness while driving, walking down stairs or in many other situations will be just as dangerous and we wouldn’t consider avoiding them. All we can do is look at things realistically, swims won’t always go smoothly, we may get cramp, pull a muscle, feel unwell and we need to be certain that when these things happen we are either close enough to safety to get out (in our compromised state) or to be able to float long enough to get the attention/ aid from others.

So, how do things go in reality. For the first 35 years of my life I was purely a pool swimmer, with maybe the occasional trip to the beach. During that period, I can’t recall a time when I have felt genuinely scared or unsafe during swimming. Maybe there was a time when I first started learning to swim but that evidently hasn’t stayed with me.

Since then I have moved into the open water, and swimming has become a much bigger part of my life through both the many swimming experiences available and the social side, with the amazing range of people in the open water swimming community. But, amongst all the enjoyment, health benefits etc, there have been a few times when I have genuinely felt scared, real I might not make it type fear; only for a second or two, but it was there.

For me the first incident occurred on first open water swim, I had signed up to my first event and thought some practice was a good idea. Arriving, it was at a public venue, I had my wet suit on and was maybe a bit apprehensive that it may be a bit cold, but generally I wasn’t expecting any problems. A bit of breaststroke off the beach, not to cold, no problems, time for some real swimming. I made it about 20m, I just felt like I was drowning. Not the biggest of real dangers, I was right in front of the safety point, as soon as I stopped swimming I was fine and breaststroke wasn’t’ a problem. But, for those few seconds I wasn’t thinking rationally. Looking back, I expect a much too tight wetsuit, overconfidence and the unexpected difference between a pool and a lake just threw me. After composing myself I had a nice breaststroke swim and made a couple more attempts at front crawl They weren’t successful, but the fear wasn’t repeated; the danger wasn’t real. In hindsight no problem, but I’m glad I wasn’t somewhere on my own. When new, even with a strong pool background its best to have that little extra cover just in case, either at a supervised venue or by partnering with more experiences swimmers. Also, if wearing a wetsuit, MAKE SURE IT IS THE RIGHT SIZE.

The second was a few months later, I had a new wetsuit, front crawl was sorted and I was swimming several km two or three times a week; time for my first race. As with many firsts in life, there were some nerves, but the worries were all about trivial things. Into the water, swim to the start, line up still all good and looking forward to the action. Pushing hard over the first 100m or so things seemed fine, then suddenly, I need more air, I need more air, somethings wrong. All sorts of panic going through my mind. Stop, hyperventilate, then calm. With my breathing back in control I could regain my composure take stock, I was fine, I could still swim and got going again. Again, real fear for that short period of time but was there a real danger. A little, what I had experienced, for the first time, was that loss of control of breathing usually associated with cold water shock. A moment to calm my breathing was enough to resolve the issue, but just a little panic could have been enough to make things much worse. Since then I have experiences similar difficulties at the start of other swims, less frequently as I’ve become more acclimatised, but now I just see it as 20s wasted in a race either calming things to steady my breathing or at worse a little breaststroke, rather than a real danger. In general, if things aren’t right, stop, look around take a deep breath; things will often feel much better allowing you to continue. In the unlikely event things are bad you still want to take that time to identify exit points, signal for help and generally work out how to resolve the issue.

On to the third occasion, by now I was an experiences competitor, taking in 10k swims, winter swims and everything in between. Still not the fastest, but swimming most days and at home in the water. I was in the river and heading upstream around the top of an island. The river was flowing faster than usual, but this was not a major worry, the exit point was back downstream and I had managed to do the hard bit of swimming against the current, admittedly taking advantage of the more sheltered water near the bank. Rounding the bend, always a little choppy, but instead of picking up the main flow to push me home I found myself going backwards towards a concrete bank. I had been at this location many times, but, up to this point the flow direction had always been predictable despite the complication of a weir a short distance upstream. When you expect to be pulled forward and you unexpectedly find yourself pushed back it can really unsettle you, the way home is a couple of meters further on, but you can’t get there. It was getting late in the season so while not super cold, you couldn’t stay in the water for ever and you can start to think, what if I can’t get around, will I get stuck against the wall, what if…

Head up to check and it was clear that carrying on forward wasn’t an option, back the way I came was the only possibility. A few more moments of uncertainty followed, but I soon felt the waters calm and a gentle helping hand from the flow. So, what had happened, this was probably the highest flow rate where I had managed to get that far upstream and the weir had been set to add all the water at the far end altering the usual flow pattern. Finally, I was swimming around the island in the opposite direction to normal, making everything that bit less familiar.

Was there a real danger? Maybe, we all know that flows/ currents can be faster than our swim speed, so should always account for this when planning a swim. In rivers, if entering and leaving at the same point it is always best to swim upstream, then the current will help you home rather than go downstream and risk being unable to get back to the planned exit point. In this case I think it was more of the surprize at being stopped at this point that was the issue, could I have been trapped at the top of the island, not in this location but that doesn’t mean it can’t happen in other places (local knowledge is key). When things don’t go as expected it can unsettling, so you need to be aware and change you plans. Not thinking is where the danger lies. It also didn’t help that although there were other swimmers in the river none of them were in direct visual contact.

The final time, was swimming laps in a lake during winter. When the water is cold things always feel that bit tougher, but there were plenty of other swimmers, safety monitors were present, it was just like every other weekend. Things were going well and I decided to go that bit further, the first half of the final lap went OK, but things didn’t stay that way, I experienced shivering while swimming. All winter swimmers will know shivering, it’s part of the bodies way of generating heat, but usually you get out, have a couple of minutes then the shivering starts. Shivering while in the water is not a good sign. By now I probably had less than 100m to go, but I was slowing and it was getting harder to focus.

My knowledge of hypothermia is not sufficient to know how much further I could have travelled, it could have been quite a lot further, or maybe it was much less, but at that point I couldn’t guarantee to myself that I could make it back. Clearly, I did make it, no rescue attempt was needed, but it isn’t something I have forgotten.
Maybe I should have signalled to the monitor on the bank, so they had time to prepare in case needed, but at the time this wasn’t something I was thinking of. Knowing what to do when in trouble is something you need to think of before, so when needed, you can quickly identify the closest safe exit, identify and signal to safety cover or fellow swimmers; make the simple decisions to keep safe.
I still swim all year round, but leave that little extra margin. When I see signs it’s time to get out, I get out, even if that bit shorter than planned. It’s also so important to acclimatise, increase distances gradually and constantly monitoring how you are feeling to identify the signs that signal whether you are OK or need to get out ASAP.

Four events, all enough to bring those few seconds of fear, but not all the same. For the first two maybe three all that was needed was to stop, take a breath and think clearly. Things to learn from, but probably not events that can be completely avoided; part of gaining experience.

However, for the final event, I believe the danger was real and it was my own fault. No one else can tell how you are feeling in the water, they can advise, but only you can ignore those early signs.
None of this is designed to say that fellow swimmers and other safety cover is not important. It is, I wasn’t completely alone at any of these events, if necessary some form of rescue would have been attempted/ the alarm raised. However, it’s not good enough to say I can do what I want and someone else will save me, everyone must take their share of responsibility and that share grows with experience.

Thanks to Katia Vastiau for providing advice for this article

AS YOU'RE HERE: The HOWSC website is maintained and run by HOWSC members and relies on voluntary contribtutions.  Do you have something you'd like to share?  Maybe reflections on a recent swim, tales of adventures in far flung places, an account of your watery accomplishments? Photographs, videos, poetry, prose, art and more will all be gratefully received and published on the website for all to admire.  Contact Mark Reed to discuss or submit your contribution.  We look forward to hearing from you.
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