Featured,  View from the Water

Another hot weekend, another tragedy, another call to avoid open water swimming

The routine is depressingly familiar. The sun comes out, people look for somewhere to cool off, someone drowns and the police issue warnings advising people not to swim in open water. In many cases the victim is a teenage boy or a young man (95 per cent of all swimming drowning victims are male). If the latter, alcohol consumption may be involved.

Sadly last weekend saw the death of a teenager in Gullet Quarry, Worcestershire. This is a swimming spot recommended in Daniel Start’s Wild Swimming book. This is how he describes it:

“This old stone quarry opened in 1818 as a source of stone for Malvern town. The cliffs and crevices that surround it have quickly returned to nature in the thirty years since it closed, and the famous spring waters have filled it to create an aquamarine amphitheatre over 100 metres wide. This is a deep and wild place like journeying to the centre of the earth.”

Keeping teenage boys out of water is like trying to stop the tide coming in. If you make it difficult in one place they will go somewhere else, probably more dangerous and with less supervision. We also know that peer pressure will push boys to take risks. I’ve seen teenagers who can barely swim jumping into rivers because that’s what their friends were doing.

Thames leap

You can’t keep boys out of water, so help them keep safe

In some cultures there’s a suspicion that teaching children to swim is a bad idea because it encourages them to go into water and therefore increases their risk of drowning. While (as far as I know) we don’t believe that in the UK, we act as if we do. We spectacularly fail to teach children not only to swim, but how to stay safe in and around water. Research by the Amateur Swimming Association (ASA) and Kelloggs suggests one in three children leaves primary school being unable to swim. Additionally, one in six parents admits to never taking their children swimming. No wonder the police and authorities have to resort to warning people to simply avoid open water swimming.

But surely it’s the lack of swimming skills we need to tackle rather than the quick (and ineffective) fix of trying to keep children away from open water.

It’s not that we need to turn every school child into a competitive potential Olympian. Personal survival skills would be a good start. As a child I followed a scheme that led from Stage 1 through to Honours (and I still have the badges my mother stitched onto my tracksuit). This was followed by the Bronze Medallion life saving award. Similar awards still exist but I rarely see them promoted or advertised.

This is a shame because they encourage youngsters to develop their skills and confidence in the water without necessarily having to be fast. They’re also fun. I remember having to collect bricks from the bottom of the pool, swimming through hoops and learning to make floats out of my pyjamas. At the same time you learn about open water safety. We were taught, for example, never to plunge recklessly into open water but to assess the situation for hazards such as underwater obstructions and currents. I may be mistaken but I seem to remember the lifesaving courses in particular being part of my secondary school swimming programme. There are secondary schools today that do not offer their pupils any swimming ever.

We don’t yet know the circumstances of the drowning in Gullet Quarry or whether the victim was a competent swimmer or not. We also know we will never prevent all drownings. However, if all children could be taught the basics of personal survival, some knowledge of how to help someone else in difficulty and an awareness of the hazards in open water, this would be much more effective than banning swimming.

We can all help in small ways, too. Lend your support to programmes such as Becky Adlington’s Swim Stars. Join campaigns to keep local pools open. Consider taking a swim teaching qualification and offering some of your free time to a local pool or club. If you have children (or grandchildren) in school let the staff know you think swimming is important. Find out if they need parents or carers to help with the logistics for swimming lessons. When you take your children swimming encourage them to bring their friends, particularly if you know their friends otherwise don’t get the chance.

Finally, when you swim outside, keep an eye out for other people swimming and make sure they don’t get into difficulties, and, most of all, keep yourself safe.