The Open Water Swimmer’s Dilemma

The summer and autumn of 2019 and winter of 2019/2020 have been unusual at the Guillamene cove. Not for the weather or for the sea but because we had a higher number of safety incidents than previously. There were a number of serious incidents that I am aware of that required intervention of inshore rescue and/or ambulance service. At a long established swimming location, with many people who have been swimming daily for decades, not a location with predominantly infrequent swimmers. Most of the incidents were of the same nature. People injured while exiting the water, with results ranging from cuts and bruises, through broken ribs, bone deep lacerations, and even including Intensive Care hospitalization. Only by fortune have fatalities been avoided.

I have previously noted that the last two years have seen a significant increase in the number of regular but still beginner open water swimmers (excluding tourists and school kids). I would superficially recognise these swimmers as having a lot more gear (Dryrobes, gear boxes or trugs, plenty of food and drink, inflatable high-visibility tow buoys) than I have seen previously, so they are noticeable. But I do not see a consonant degree of swimming experience. Most swim distances in the 660 metre or less range. (I give this odd figure because the 250 metre buoy was for most of the year out about 330 metres from the Guill, and many did not swim that distance). There are a smaller number who swim the longer distance of the pier and back (2400 metres) and then only a couple who swim a longer again three to four kilometre range. Of those locals swimming more than five kilometres, there is only me, with a couple intermittently swimming around five kilometres range.

In early winter 2019, born out of frustration, I drafted (but did not publish) a long article about one swim (not one of those above which led to emergency services getting involved), which did not have an outcome of the sort previously mentioned, but which for me was the culmination and crystallisation of the aforementioned general lack of experience and attitudes to safety I had witnessed.

Irish Coast Guard Helicopter Rescue 117

Irish Coast Guard Helicopter Rescue 117 – much loved in Ireland’s South-east, nevertheless, you don’t want them to be coming for you

Eliding unnecessary details, I arranged to tour a small number of swimmers out to Loneswimmer cave. On arriving to give the pre-swim brief, I found a few additional uninvited swimmers present, who had been invited on Facebook by one of the group, with no discussion with me. I questioned each about their capability and training and experience. I refused to allow a couple to join based on their responses. One was very angry, shouting about “20 years of adventure experience“, despite being only an occasional 1000 metre swimmer. The actual swim completed safely, but one of the swimmers I’d invited did not report accurate swim speed nor that they were feeling very tired that day. The last swimmer took 90 minutes to complete a 2400 metre swim with me accompanying them every stroke. During this I became increasingly concerned and realised they had misled me about their ability. A couple of times I even had to redirect the swimmer, in good conditions, from swimming in the direct opposite direction away from land.

Over the course of the following weeks, I spoke with some people. I told some of these swimmers that conditions were unsafe for me, let alone them. I raised the problem of safe exits of which I have spoken for years. I talked of the requirement for consistent training in the pool to build strength for open water. I said that beginner and intermediate swimmers need to improve poor technique and training and understanding the sea in order to be able to swim more safely. I said that they need to develop both an understanding of the environment in which they swim, and their own capabilities and just as importantly learn their limitations.

I spoke of the difference between swimming to the limit of what you were capable now, and what you could be capable of with experience and training, and the danger that lay in the gap between the two. I talked about the difference between someone who swims a million metres a year swimming for an hour or two, and someone who never trains properly swimming three kilometres once a week. I explicitly explained how the swims I do that look hard for some are well within my limits and that I don’t push my limits when swimming by myself. Indeed I often spoke of limits, how I have spent many years and even decades learning the sea, and almost as important, learning my own ability. How there are limits caused by training, strength, weather, location, temperature, and these limits change dynamically.

It must also be recognised that your limits change according to circumstances. In winter when I am swimming short distances, I am not as concerned about getting cold after the swim as ensuring I do not get so cold during a swim that my judgement, strength, grip, or ability to sprint for an exit are compromised. So my winter swims might be 15 or 20 minutes, where I am allowing myself a safety margin of 10 minutes. Yet my summer swims are less concerned with time, so I may swim two or three hours, knowing I could swim another hour or more if I wanted to push out my training.

I expounded on how the ocean is a deadly place to accidentally find that you have gone past your own limits when you have no support, no plan, nothing sufficient in your experience or strength to that you can call on when everything goes wrong.

None of that was intended to be vanity, regardless how it sounds. It was to frame what I believe is necessary to reduce the possibility of over-estimating your mental and physical strength, to reduce the possibilities of something going wrong, and to be better able to appropriately respond when something inevitably does go wrong.

I did not get to do this to a captive audience. Nor did I always, or maybe ever, do it well, or persuasively. Because that is one of my deficiencies, to think that a logical argument is evident and sufficiently compelling in itself, and I am not a natural persuader. I said all this to ones and twos and threes. I sometimes started talking to one person at the Guill knowing or hoping that others would listen. I railed and rebuked and even admonished in frustration, and thereby alienated many because “who the fuck does yer man think he is?”

I even told some people outright that what they were doing, or had done, or were about to do was foolish or even outright dangerous. I told some, particularly the person alluded to in the specific incident above that I would never swim with them again, not recommend them to others.

More than anything I expressed my fundamental and fervent core belief about open water swimming, that you must make your safety decisions on land, because once you are in the water, it is too late. There is a difference between prevention of problems and responding to problems.

This is the open water swimmer’s dilemma: The need to balance your desire, your enthusiasm to swim and your experience with the fact that the ocean does not care about your enthusiasm. Your enthusiasm, your feeling that you have discovered a fundamentally important and enriching new aspect of your life, is only of value outside the water. It is what gets you into the water, but it is useless in the water. It is not an ability. It does not provide the mental or physical strength you will need when things go to hell. It does not give you some occurrence you can pull from your past that you can adapt to solve your current problem.

You must embrace the lesson of all experienced swimmers: The ocean will still be there tomorrow. You must be able to walk away, to not get in the water. Not just when there are eight metre waves washing out the coast and making swimming impossible, you must learn to evaluate when it looks possible but is not safe. You must be able to decide to swim or not swim based entirely on your own capabilities rather than those of your friends or some arbitrary swim organiser who may have very little real experience. You are responsible for your safety.

You must never think that things will not ever go wrong in the sea. Because once you are in the water and things do go wrong, as they will in open water swimming, you must to able to bring to bear your own prowess. You must develop three essential abilities, all of which are still not as important as good decision making and risk avoidance.

  • You must be able to stay calm. A tendency to panic is perhaps the most dangerous thing any swimmer can bring into open water with them. As I have said previously, no situation is ever improved by panic, and cold water swimming in particular is an environment which grant no leniency for such behaviour.
  • You must have sufficient ability (which includes strength, stamina, and technique) on which you can rely. I have little NO sympathy for open water swimmers who use dislike of the pool to not improve their strength or technique but still want to do whatever they desire.
  • You must have experience (which includes problem-solving, understanding the relevant factors, such as wind, tide or temperature, and bringing to bear appropriate knowledge to a situation). Experience is a toolkit you carry out of the past, that only get deeper and heavier. I disagree entirely with English Channel Pilot Mike Oram, who says you only get experience when you no longer need it. In the sea, you never stop needing or gaining experience. But you only develop relevant experience gradually. Kilometre swimmers become mile swimmers, become three k swimmers and so on. Where you don’t have experience you learn from those who do.

This last item maybe is the problem I have with some of the new pods of swimmers. The pods are insular, lacking people of experience. So the members cannot recognise their shortcomings. I learned skills and gained knowledge of the sea from looking and watching, from books, surfers, sailors, fishermen and most importantly from other swimmers. I learned to swim far… from others who have swum further. I have been an open water swimmer for fifteen years and ten years more in the ocean before that and one of the things that keeps me interested are the never-ending opportunities to improve my knowledge and experience.

Let me be clear, nor does every new or developing or short distance open water swimmer display the same attitude and behaviour. Most of the regular swimmers at the Guill, those who have been swimming there for decades are very clear in understanding their limitations, about not getting in if they think it’s not safe to get out. They talk to each other about the sea, understand the effects of a dead storm on the water the subsequent day, changes in temperature, wind direction and tide height. They may not swim far, but they swim regularly and carefully and safely.

The problem lies with some of the newer swimmers, and it seems to me that it arises from beginner open water new swimmers giving precedence to the enthusiasm for their new activity and the enervating sensations it confers, (which even us hardened veterans know, because it’s why we never stop) rather than a natural and completely essential caution.

We have seen over and over the almost childlike joy and post-swim rejuvenation conferred on people by cold water sea swimming that leads to regular practitioner’s declaiming on the life-affirming and -enhancing properties of cold water and why we keep doing it year on year. We are, quite literally, addicted.

But neither are all new swimmers of the same cavalier attitude. Recent new swimmer Helen B. for example, mother of a professional sportsperson displays both the incredible enthusiasm that makes some new open water swimmers a pleasure to be around, combined with a very sensible pragmatism about her own abilities, and a rational recognition and desire to learn more about the factors that influence both sea swimming, to develop her own experience and skills.

I think Helen is a good role model for the others of whom I am critical. I am keen to express that this is not special pleading, that “we were better back in my day“. It’s not an expression of elitism or not wanting new blood in the sport. Loneswimmer.com has always been about sharing all the lessons I’ve learned over the years, some the hard way, which is to say by myself and as the result of my own mistakes, because I know how difficult such solo learning often was.

The fundamental lessons must always apply. Adrenaline should never overwhelm thoughtful consideration (and in cold open water swimming adrenaline is best avoided altogether). Safety must always be first, and then second. Enthusiasm should never conquer caution. Lessons must be learned from what we have experienced, and retained, and then applied in the future.

28 thoughts on “The Open Water Swimmer’s Dilemma

  1. Well said and probably more relevant now as people return to the water after a long break or limited swimming since March. Acclimatisation and swim fitness will have suffered in that time.

    I have to admit that I have entered at the Guillamine against my better judgement and still have the scars on the backs of my legs to remind me of my stupidity! I was fortunate that as I got pulled under hand rail and along the rocks next to the steps, that I did not take an intake of breath triggered by the cold water and I remained in a sitting position – I’m not sure how I stayed calm for the few seconds being pushed along the rocks by the waves, probably down to years of being in water and/or a strong survival instinct. When I popped up and swam to my swim buddies I think they were more worried than I was. I was lucky enough to walk away with a sore bum and some fairly impressive grazes just above the back of my ankles. Had I panicked, I could have drowned and possibly drowned a friend as I came up, cracked my head on the rocks or at best had scars over more of my body.

    In the hopes that others learn from my own stupidity, I do tell people how I got those scars. I am a strong, technically good swimmer (all 4 strokes plus a couple of rescue stroke) and at the time was training 3-4 times a week in the pool and weekly in the sea, I don’t remember not being able to swim, but I come from a pool background, the rivers and sea in Essex where I was before moving here are not conducive to open water swimming. A lot of others would not have got off with such minor injuries, my ability and experience prevented me or someone else from paying a higher price for my stupidity.

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  2. Excellent information, and timely—as our open water season in Lake Erie starts up in a couple of months. More than once I’ve asked less-experienced swimmers to stay out of the water when the lake is big and the exit is tricky. I’ll post a link to this post on our Facebook group page. It’s a good reminder for all of us. Thank you.

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  3. So spot on! Enthusiasm sometimes trumps common sense which gets left in the parking lot all too often. I enjoy the exuberance of the newbies, but also caution them to know their surroundings. When swimming with a newbie…sometimes an exceptional pool swimmer who over estimates their ability in moving open water, I take them to an area (safely and near shore) where I know the tide is moving and have them ‘float’ next to a moored boat so they can see/feel what that the water is moving. My hope is that they develop respect for the sea and an aha moment for my swimmer. Awesome article.

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  4. Great article – very in depth and informative. I am relatively new to open water swimming. Would you have a view as to whether breastroke is an appropriate stroke for a long sea swim or do you think it should always be front crawl?

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    • Thanks Kate. Of the fours strokes, breaststroke is by far my worst. I think whatever you enjoy AND are competent with is a good starting place. I’ve seen all four done. However I do have some observations, the main one of which is that once front crawl was developed in the early 20th century, long distance open water breaststroke virtually disappeared. It’s not as efficient, is significantly slower and makes the swimmer more exposed to wind, and may be harder to maintain body heat. But most of those observations, as I say, comes from someone who is not a breaststroker.

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  5. Thank you for this very thorough & important message. Your message is also a great reminder to be aware of your own safety wrt risks other people are taking. Your words may well save someone’s life, so hopefully negative comments can wash away! Cheers

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  6. A pleasure to read as always Donal, and bang on the mark. Please continue. Regards from NZ

    Sent from Yahoo Mail on Android

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  7. This is a concern I hear up and down the country but seldom is it spoken out loud. A symptom perhaps of many aspects of media and society in general perhaps. Searching for instant gratification without doing the hard yards, wanting “the buzz”. All of this buzz collectively seeking to just “do“ immediately and to have it publicly praised. It seems that there is an ever growing need to swim colder, faster, longer. There is a place to push human endeavour sure but where in fact is the every mans fun in that? Maybe we can remember alongside these extremes to promote kudos for taking part in a regular swim, regardless of temperature, length and duration – dedication is admirable too. I guess right now though no one is shouting out “hey did you see that guy… he’s so consistent” but then they would only know if they were there all the time too.

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    • Thank you Paul. I made to small edits to clarify based on your comment, because I completely agree. I wanted to emphasise my respect for the swimmers who do it year on year, are not concerned with online status, who practice safety without even thinking of it, and should be emulated and learned from.

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    • Great piece. I’ve been swimming indoors and out all my life and I love it. But respect for the water – indoors and out – is key, and a good dose of consideration for anyone who might put their own safety at risk to try to rescue you if it all goes wrong.

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  8. There is a flying aphorism “It’s better to be on the ground wishing you were in the air, then in the air wishing you were on the ground” that I think is relevant. Safety starts at the decision to launch or dive in, and if you can’t accurately assess your capabilities against the conditions, you’d be wise to listen to someone who can or wait another day.

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    • Thanks Dave. That’s a perfect synopsis of the issue, and I’m glad I hadn’t heard it before because it might have derailed me from writing, since you put it so succinctly. I held onto this post for a long time, because I feared the backlash in all honesty, but because I feel so strongly about the subject, decided to go ahead, and well, it’s good to know at least I know some very experienced swimmers like the SF Bay swimmers in agreement.

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  9. Donel,
    Most valuable thing, I believe, you have ever written. Thank you.
    I was an abalone driver long before I was a serious open water swimmer (I still don’t think of myself as a swimmer- I am an abalone driver who does a little swimming.) I have said since the 70’s “No situation is improved by panic.” But much more important is knowing when not to get in. Abalone divers call it Sacramento Fever – when get in when you shouldn’t. You drive forever from Sacramento to the ocean. And you can’t drive all that way without getting in… even though you shouldn’t. And then something bad happens.

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    • Anthony, it is so good to hear from you, and know you are out there, I was only thinking of you the other day. I hope you are well. Thanks for your comment. I always recall you telling me about the abalone fishing, something that still seems exotic and aspirational, a golden dream of a Californian coast fantasy for a wee Irish lad. I love the term Sacramento Fever, and it reminds me of pulling into Doolin village on Ireland’s west coast, seeing the huge May swell out in the bay crashing onto Crab Island and being both excited and terrified. It took time, experience and maturity to learn how to deal with that.

      Stay well my friend.

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  10. Spot on. Beautifully articulated as ever. Talking with the like-minded perhaps but an essential reminder, and a neat record, of the many necessary considerations needed before an open water swim. Keep it going Loneswimmer!

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  11. Spot on as per usual. Safety first,second and third. The number of times someone has told me ‘they surf’ or ‘I’m an iron man ‘ and then proceeds to not be able to properly swim ….

    Liked by 1 person

    • I am inclined to believe you are correct Trish. And therein lies a problem, both with the general lack of experience, and my own inability to communicate the importance to those who need to understand, rather than those who agree because they have already learned this.

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