How To: Be Responsible For Your Own Open Water Swimming Safety – Two Guiding Principles

Three or four years ago I wrote a post about swimming a new location, and the steps I take to do so safely. However as primarily an ocean open water swimmer it focused specifically on my thoughts when swimming a new coastal location in a high tidal range area.
As every regular reader may have realised (especially because I keep repeating one of them), despite my occasional apparent recklessness to keep me and you amused, I am always guided by twin safety principles:
  1. The best safety decisions are made outside of the water.
  2. Nobody else is responsible for my safety, except myself.

Taken together, these mean that regardless of what anyone else ever says or decides, I decide if a swim is safe or not. In a world of deferred personal responsibility, when you can do this with confidence, you have taken control of the most valuable thing you possess and that is entirely your own, your life. As da Vinci said, “you can have no dominion greater or less than that over yourself.”

These principles mean that I have skipped swims that other as experienced swimmers had completed safely. It has on occasion also meant the opposite. I’ve never regretted those decisions, and while there haven’t been many, each time I have made one, I felt I grew in experience and in confidence.
But for this to work properly each time I need to make such a decision, I do so in the light of further criteria or sub-criteria that I apply.
  • The decision needs to be final. I do not second guess myself based on what anyone else says. I do not second guess myself based on the chance that things might go fine. The fact is that most of my swimming friends are highly experienced multiple Channel and/or marathon and even Ice Mile swimmers. They know their swim locations well, all have put in serious open water swimming time. I value the experience, judgement and opinions of such people as Finbarr Hedderman, Ciaran Byrne,  Lisa Cummins, Rob Bohane, Gabor Molnar, Owen O’Keeffe and some others ahead of everyone else, no matter how fast or highly ranked those others may be. Because I have swum so much with them and trust and know their ways of thinking and judgement. But I value my own decisions about my own safety ahead of even those valued swimming friends. So when I make such a call, I will take (when appropriate) the contributions of those swimmers very seriously. But I will not place it ahead of my own. I will not let myself be guided by self-doubt or lack or confidence. Not because I think I know more, but simply because it’s my own safety. (Though to be honest, I am just as rigorous with the safety of others when entrusted with their care). And I do have a real problem with swimmers trying to goad others into doing things they don’t want, and equate it to encouraging someone to drink and drive. (This happened me when I decided before my first Lough Dan Ice Mile swim attempt that I would only swim half way. I wasn’t swayed but the responsible swimmer, still blithely unaware to this day, is off my trusted swimmer list. A simple “ah go on, go on” to the wrong person at the wrong time is an irresponsible action).
Ice at the edges of Lough Dan,scene of Fergal Somerville's Ice Mile Invitationals.

Ice at the edges of Lough Dan,scene of Fergal Somerville’s International Ice Mile Invitationals, where I decided to only swim half a mile

  • There can be no second-guessing. Whatever swims I decided to do or not to do based on the safety situation around the swim, or the location or something else, I was aware of the positive likelihood of the outcome. As proved to be the case in most that I recall. But regardless, I make my decision beforehand, based on the assessment of the risk, and based on the available information and experience at that point. When such as swim did go ahead successfully, I did not berate myself that I was overly cautious or that I assessed the risk incorrectly. I remain resolute that my assessment of the risk was accurate and that the success of the actual swim (about which I was delighted) was immaterial to my decision. Just because I or you don’t participate in what transpires to be a successful swim, does not change the facts as they were known or estimated beforehand. This is the important point you always recall. A positive ending does not mean you were wrong and in fact if that happens and you know you still have made the correct decision, then you will know you have increased in both knowledge and experience.

This is why I stress the number one tool in your open water swimming toolbox is experience. What I mean by this explanation of what I do, is to try to encourage you to do the same. To continually and personally estimate risks and hazards. When unsure, swim and learn more. Keep iterating these two rules in your mind. Cold or hot, rough or exposed, sea, river or lake. Balance the known or forecast conditions, your own experience and skill, the safety cover, what other people are doing or might do. Your range of safety will vary as your skill and experience change, sometimes narrowing, sometimes broadening.

Always take the final control of your own decision to swim or not. Your safety is your safety, so own it.


3 thoughts on “How To: Be Responsible For Your Own Open Water Swimming Safety – Two Guiding Principles

  1. Pingback: How To: Understand the Different Types of Open Water Swimming Locations Features and Hazards – I – The Ocean | LoneSwimmer

  2. Hello Lone-Swimmer. I would like to know if you use a personal locator beacon or any such device when you are swimming alone in open waters and if so, which one did you review and which one do you recommend?


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