I have been meaning to write up a list of open water safety tips for a while, but keep putting it off. My pool swimming buddy, Chris, is just starting to get interested in open water and asked for some safety tips, so I thought it was time to finally get it done.
By putting this list together, I hope that I don't scare people away from trying open water. The fact is, there are some dangers associated with swimming outside that are different from swimming in a pool. While this isn't a comprehensive list, it should give you some things to think about before your next open water swim.
1 - Swim with someone else
Remember the buddy system from school or Boy Scouts? Swimming with other people is more fun, but it's also safer. In case something were to happen, they can help you out (and you can help them too). Your swim "buddy" doesn't necessarily have to be in the water swimming with you. They could be on a kayak or on shore.
2 - Know where you are swimming
There is something to be said for spontaneity, but I recommend doing a little research before swimming in a new place. What is the water temperature? Are there any hazards? Are there established swimming routes? Are there landmarks that you can use to sight on or help you judge the distance you will swim? Is there a good place to get in and out of the water? Are motorized boats allowed?
3 - Check weather forecasts and water temperatures
I keep a pool thermometer in my swim bag and almost always take the water temperature before I get it. I do this because I have a general idea of how long I am comfortable staying it the water at different temperatures before I start to get cold.
I also take a quick look at the weather forecast before I go swimming. If it looks like there will be high winds or thunderstorms, I'll swim at the pool instead.
4 - Swim with a safety device
I am a big fan of the Safer Swimmer and almost always swim with one when I don't have kayak support. It's basically an inflatable drysack that you pull behind you. It is bright orange, which makes you easier to see on the water, and can easily support by body weight when inflated. There are more and more safety devices coming on to the market that range from a body board you pull behind you to CO2 powered compact inflatables and wearable flags.
5 - Let someone know where you are and when you will be back
I always let my wife know where I am going and when I expect to be done. When I finish, I give her a quick call to let her know that I am out of the water.
6 - Wear a bright colored cap
Wearing a bright colored cap is a good way to make yourself more visible to other people on the water and the shore.
7 - Stay near the shore
Unless you have an escort boat, stay near the shore. This will keep you out of boat territory and give you a place to quickly get out if needed.
8 - Bring something warm
If you are going to be swimming in cold water, be sure that you have a towel and/or dry clothes on hand for when you get out. The worst part of cold water swimming for me comes a few minutes after getting out of the water, as my body temperature continues to drop and I start shaking to warm back up.
9 - Be aware of your surroundings
Even though you may be swimming in a non-motorized boat area, wearing a bright cap and a safety device, you are still not out of the woods. You need to be aware of your surroundings. Boaters will not be looking for swimmers in the water, and do not always follows boating laws.
10 - Use common sense
Don't do anything stupid.