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Why people get pulled out at open water swimming events

This weekend we went to the Great North Swim in Windermere. At the beginning of many of the waves the referee asked first-timers to raise their hands. Often the majority did.

This is clearly fantastic news for open water swimming. Judging from the smiles at the finish, and conversations with swimmers, most enjoyed the experience and will be looking for more.

Some though, instead of a mile swim, got a ride in a rescue boat.

The safety cover at Windermere was excellent with lifeguards on shore, in kayaks out on the course and in motorised support craft ready to assist anyone in need. On the Saturday in particular, the safety crew were busy and pulled approximately 100 swimmers from the water, often in the first 200m.
Safety cover was excellent but conditions rough
Talking to the lifeguards revealed some of the reasons:

  • First time in open water: panic or underestimated how hard it would be.
  • First time in wetsuit: too big, too loose, can’t breathe etc.
  • First time in rough water
  • First time trying to swim with gloves
  • Couldn’t make progress against the waves
  • Cramp

Notice four of the six points above include the word “first”. Despite advice from us, from event organisers, from coaches and triathlon magazines, people frequently turn up to race with very limited open water and wetsuit swimming experience. The further conditions are removed from the warm calm of the swimming pool the more likely people are going to struggle.
Of course, people need to start somewhere, and one race has to be your first. But racing puts you under pressure, even if you’re not in it to win it. Something about the crowds and the atmosphere makes you much more nervous than you would be doing a swim in a lake with some friends – so don’t add to that pressure by overloading on firsts. Your first race should not also be your first ever open water swim or first outing for a new wetsuit or pair of goggles. Please spread the word because a lot of people don’t seem to be getting the message.
One of the attractions in open water is the variability in conditions. This adds to the challenge and overcoming the elements is part of the satisfaction. But when we are overcome by the elements then it’s frustrating (or even dangerous). Windermere is a big lake. When the wind blows, which it did on that Saturday, it can generate a lot of big, choppy waves. Even some more experienced swimmers found it hard going, so it’s not just beginners who suffer.
This touches on another recurring theme: at what point should an organiser call off an event? Last year the Great North and many other swims were called off because of adverse conditions, and some swimmers who felt they could cope with those conditions were upset. This year we know of a race that went ahead that probably should have been cancelled, although at least one swimmer who completed the event thought it was the right decision to continue (see our Aug/Sep issue for more on this).
We can’t change the conditions and it is race organisers and their safety teams that have to decide whether or not events can go ahead. As swimmers though we should always prepare to the best of our ability, practise in different conditions, understand our own limits and capabilities and act accordingly. Sometimes you may get it wrong when pushing your limits and need assistance. But through H2Open Magazine we aim to share the best advice for swimmers so hopefully our readers will be among the finishers, not those who need to be pulled out of swims because of poor preparation.

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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.