Swim wild and free. It’s something we love to do, and we don’t like anyone else telling us when, where or in what water conditions we can swim. Swimming outdoors has risks but most outdoor swimmers understand these, know their limits and keep themselves and each other safe.
So what, therefore, should we make of SH2OUT, a partnership between the Royal Life Saving Society and British Triathlon? SH2OUT aims to support the development of safe commercial swimming venues, develop standards for open water swimming events, help build swimming communities, inspire participation and provide industry guidance. By making open water swimming safer and more accessible, the hope is that more people will take up triathlon, as swimming is often the biggest barrier. But will it also result in unwanted rules and regulations?
Restriction of rights
SH2OUT’s creation has caused consternation in some quarters that our rights to swim wild and free may be restricted if their standards become de facto operational limits for all open water swimming activities. Colin Hill (founder of Chill Swim) worries about SH2OUT’s approach to water temperature limits. In triathlon, the minimum water temperature for swimming in competition is 11 degrees, and this has been taken forward as the lower limit to SH2OUT venue accreditation. Colin points out that people have been safely and happily swimming in colder water than this for years – and they definitely wouldn’t want to be told to stop.
As for events, Kate Rew, event director for three estuary swims run by the Outdoor Swimming Society, says: “To me the idea that SH2OUT (or anyone else) could create one-size-fits-all accreditation which improves event safety is predicated on a misunderstanding of the world’s most exciting open water events. As soon as you introduce tides, bends, currents and cold then safety is a complete interplay between the abilities of the swimmers, conditions on the day, and the plans made and seen through by the event manager and water safety manager. The idea that that an accrediting body says that it’s safe by looking at the paperwork is just crazy.”
Meanwhile, SH2OUT has demonstrated it can be a positive force. Paul Brown runs open water swimming sessions in Scaling Dam Reservoir. He says: “In 2018 we became SH2OUT accredited which provided myself with guidance and the sailing club committee with confidence that all procedures and safety arrangements were up to standard.” The venue now attracts about 60 swimmers to two sessions per week, where no swimming had been happening before.
Responding to the concerns about lower temperature limits, Martin Suzan, safety advisor to SH2OUT, says: “There isn’t a desire from SH2OUT to ‘police’ this entire sphere, but instead, find ways to support venue operators with sensible guidance and considerations for them to be able to offer cooler swimming, safely.”
The challenge we face as outdoor swimmers is how to welcome new people with positive and safe experiences while at the same time enabling those who wish to explore and extend their limits to do so – and help them manage the risks that come with that.
The combined resources of British Triathlon and the RLSS through SH2OUT should have a positive impact on growth in open water swimming. However, outdoor swimming is a much broader (and older) activity than triathlon swimming. Those who want to keep swimming wild and free (and cold) should continue regardless.
Picture credit: Katia Vastiau