Is outdoor swimming safe? How to answer this common but tricky question

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I hate being asked if outdoor swimming is safe. It is a closed question, demanding a yes or no response, when clearly neither is appropriate.

“Yes, it’s safe.” – “Then why do people drown?”

“No, it’s not safe.” – “Then why are you doing it and encouraging other people to do it?”

You could hedge your bets and say, “it depends” (which is true) or perhaps respond with the more philosophical, “safety is a relative concept.” Also true, but hardly imparting any useful information.

Having been asked this question hundreds of times over the years, I still don’t have the perfect response, but I do have some suggestions on how to approach it.

Why are they asking?

My first step is to try to figure out why someone is asking. However, responding directly with “why are you asking?” sounds defensive. I find something like: “are you thinking of going for a swim?” is more effective and, usually, especially if the person asking is a potential swimmer, steers the conversation in a helpful direction. I can find out how experienced the other person is, point out generic and specific hazards and hopefully provide useful advice or offer encouragement.

A different conversation would result from a non-swimming concerned passer-by. The last thing you want is for someone to call the emergency services and waste their time as there was somebody in the water (it happens). A good answer in this situation is to thank them for checking and reassure them that it’s safe enough as long as you know what to look out for.

What are they worried about?

People have an amazing range of worries about things that can go wrong when swimming in open water, from catching hideous diseases to being eaten by sharks. As with many worries, there is often a small element of truth combined with a disproportionate assessment of the scale of the risks. If your questioner is of the any-risk-is-too-much-risk sort, then no argument will persuade them. Save your breath for swimming. While it is impossible to put an exact figure on the risks you are taking on any outdoor swim, you could attempt an order-of-magnitude estimation. Often your assessment will show you that your swim is probably safer than the bike ride or drive that brought you to your destination. If you can demonstrate that you have thought things through and have done your own assessment of the hazards, you should be able to convince most people that the benefits (and there are many) of your swim far outweigh the risks.

But I still want to know, is it safe?

Yes, some people can be that insistent. In the end, the only person you truly have to convince is yourself.

The Economist, in an article about wingsuit BASE jumping, asked: “why do some people risk their lives for fun?” (Risk-taking, Last of the daredevils, January 30th, 2021.) They point out that more than 300 BASE jumpers have died in the past two decades. If something goes wrong on a BASE jump, you will almost certainly die or be seriously injured. While people do occasionally (but rarely) die while swimming outdoors, the consequences of something going wrong are usually far less severe.

I don’t want to draw too many parallels between BASE jumping and outdoor swimming, but one thing that struck me when reading The Economist article is that BASE jumpers, like outdoor swimmers, do not see their activity “as scary in the way outsiders do.” BASE jumpers are not afraid when they jump, not because of bravado, but because they’ve trained for years and have done detailed risk assessments. If something doesn’t feel right, or conditions have changed, most will turn around and walk back down the mountain rather than jump off.

And this is something that reminds me of outdoor swimming: it doesn’t feel scary when I’m doing it. I might be nervous, which is good as it reminds me to be vigilant, but if I was afraid, I wouldn’t go in. You should always assess the risks before any outdoor swim, even if just checking things off in your head. If, rationally, you think it is safe, but you’re still afraid, don’t do it. Trust your feelings. Come back another day in different conditions or with more support. If on the other hand, your gut tells you it’s safe but a calculated analysis of the risks says otherwise, then trust your calculations.

So is outdoor swimming safe? It depends, as I said at the start. But how safe, in the long run, is it to avoid something that brings you joy, boosts your self-esteem and supports your physical and mental health? The good thing is, you get to decide which of these risks you want to take, and I know which one I will go for.

01 Cover October

Issue 54 October 2021

  • We Swim Proud: The LGBTQ+ experience of swimming outdoors
  • Autumn Adventures: The best places to wild swim this autumn
  • Crowning Glory: Courtney Paulk’s historic Double Triple Crown
  • Cassie Patten: What is the best style front crawl stroke for the open water?
  • Access All Areas: The problem of making lidos more accessible to disabled swimmers

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