Is it safe to swim here?
I live about 100m from the Thames. The other day, a delivery driver knocked at our door to hand over a parcel and then asked me: “Is it safe to swim in the river?”.
It sounds like a simple question but I didn’t know how to answer him.
Firstly, I couldn’t figure out why he was asking me. He didn’t know I publish a magazine about outdoor swimming nor that I had any particular interest in the river. I assumed it was because you can see the river from our front door, it was a warm day and he fancied a swim.
Secondly, and more importantly, I don’t know anything about him apart from what I could see and hear:
- He’s a delivery driver
- He’s in his late 20s/early 30s
- He’s got a beard and he wears glasses
- English probably isn’t his first language
- He’s about 5”8’ and of medium build
That is, absolutely nothing that could help me judge his swimming competence or experience. Even though I swim in the river and I take my friends and children swimming in the river, I realised I couldn’t give the simple yes or no answer that I think was wanted.
People often ask me if open water swimming is safe. As I was struggling to answer the delivery driver, it struck me that this is the wrong question to ask. The question we really need an answer to is: are you competent to swim in this particular stretch of water at this moment in time?
That competence will not only include your swimming ability but also your experience of open water, your ability to assess the hazards and mitigate the risks, whether or not you’ve being drinking alcohol or are under the influence of drugs, what are the conditions like on the day, who else is with you and so on.
I know it’s perfectly possible to swim safely in the Thames. I also know people die while attempting to swim there. So is the river safe to swim in? It is for some people but it might not be for Mr Delivery Driver. I just don’t know enough about him to give a sensible answer. The easiest response would therefore be to say “no”. But I didn’t say that, of course, as I want to encourage people to swim in open water and enable them to do so. Instead, I gave him a copy of the magazine, suggested he read the safety advice on our website and then let me know when he wants to swim so that I can keep an eye on him.
Given that he asked, “is it safe to swim in the river?” my guess is that he isn’t an experienced open water swimmer. Otherwise he might have asked things like: do other people swim here; is it legal to swim here; do you know if the water quality is good enough for swimming; if I were to swim here, is there anything I should know about? In other words, I’d expect an experienced swimmer to ask questions to enable them to make their own conclusion about whether or not it’s safe to swim rather than relying on someone else’s judgement, especially someone you don’t know.
We are, or should be, the best judges of our capabilities and experiences, and therefore the best placed to assess whether or not somewhere is safe to swim, for us. Asking someone else if it’s safe to swim puts an unfair responsibility on them. Instead, ask for the information you need in order to make your own risk assessment and take responsibility for your own safety. The river is as it is; it’s your competence, experience and approach that determines whether or not it’s safe to swim in.