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The wrong message on open water swimming

The other day my kids reported that form teachers in their school had been asked to read out a letter about the dangers of open water swimming. I guess it was linked to the RLSS drowning prevention week, which ran from 18 to 26 June.
Apparently, local police had “caught” a couple of children swimming in the river. The letter went on to say that if any other children were “caught” in the river they would be in trouble with both the police and the school. It also highlighted that the river was extremely dangerous because of hidden undercurrents.
I haven’t seen the letter so I don’t know the exact wording or the context, or the location where the children were “caught” so I can’t confirm its contents but if true it fits in well with the alarmist poster campaign the fire service has promoted this year (see image).
At the same time, Sport England and the ASA are fretting about declining swimming numbers. Is it any wonder if we’re scaring everyone away?
But back to the letter. Firstly, I have a problem with the word “caught”. Whether or not you agree with scaremongering methods to reduce drownings, swimming in the Thames (at least near my children’s school) is not illegal. “Caught” definitely implies you’re doing something you’re not allowed to.
In fact, it seems to be a fairly common misconception that swimming in the Thames is illegal. It isn’t, except where it’s specifically excluded such as in Central London. It’s not unusual to be asked “are you allowed to do that” when swimming in the Thames. Yes, you are.
So, I’m not exactly sure what “trouble” you can be in, and what sanctions either the police or the school could impose if you’re “caught” swimming.
The mysterious undercurrents threat is also an odd one. It’s not new. I think I was told the same as a child and was terrified of swimming in rivers for years believing I could be suddenly and inexplicably sucked down. I have never actually found out what undercurrents really are but I suspect they are spurious, like monsters in the woods, designed to keep children away but not really existing.
On the other hand, there are significant dangers to swimming in the Thames and I don’t think these even got mentioned (although, as I said, I haven’t seen the letter). These include fast moving boat traffic (particularly rowers going backwards), debris and poor visibility (jumping in should be discouraged without a thorough examination of what you’re jumping into) and, downstream of Teddington, tides which can result in strong currents and quickly changing water levels. Added to that there are multiple locks and weirs on the rivers, which are best avoided while swimming, as you definitely do get strong currents around them.
Kids can have a huge amount of fun playing about on the river. It gets them off their screens and outside. They exercise and can develop an awareness of nature and how to assess risks for themselves. Surely we should be encouraging this – not scaring them off? And therefore shouldn’t we be providing the correct information about the dangers?
To be fair to the RLSS, their aim is to “show people how they can have fun and stay safe around water.” They are not trying to prevent people from going in. The more alarmist messages come from the emergency services who have the dangerous, difficult and traumatic job of pulling bodies out of the water when things go wrong. Their intentions are good and their motivation understandable but that doesn’t necessarily make the scaremongering message the right one.
Part of the problem of course is that a lot of secondary school age children can’t actually swim and most are ill-equipped to swim in open water. The curriculum requirement to be able to swim 25m in a swimming pool at the time of leaving primary school is totally inadequate preparation. I can’t imagine any school would implement this, but wouldn’t it be fantastic if they could take the class to the river for PE and teach the kids how to swim in open water safely?
You will be able to scare some kids away from water but the more adventurous will always be drawn to it, just as we are. Rather than trying to frighten them away, let’s help them enjoy it safely. 

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I created Outdoor Swimmer in 2011 (initially as H2Open Magazine) as an outlet for my passion for swimming outdoors. I've been a swimmer and outdoor swimmer for as long as I remember. Swimming has made a huge difference to my life and I want to share its joys and benefits with as many people as possible. I am also the author of Swim Wild & Free: A Practical Guide to Swimming Outdoors 365 a Year and I provide one-to-one support to swimmers through Swim Mentoring.