Sea Swimming

Most people in the UK will have been in the sea at some time in their lives. Many will have kept their feet firmly on the ground and exercised great caution – instinctively knowing that they are putting their lives in danger by getting in any further. Drowning is the third highest cause of accidental death for children in the UK. More than 400 people accidentally drown in the UK every year.

In 2013 fatalities at the sea, on the beach or shoreline accounted for nearly a third (115) of all UK deaths by drowning. A further 22 deaths happened at harbours, docks, marinas and inland or coastal ports.

It’s a very big sea. A dangerous environment that you cannot control

It’s a very big sea. A dangerous environment that you cannot control

‘There’s little to compare with the thrill of a stormy sea swim, diving and forging through teetering waves before bouncing in the swell behind the break.’ (Kate Rew – Wild Swim)

I have been swimming in the sea most of my life. I gained life guarding qualifications as a young adult. In the mid 1970’s – when we had those really amazing heat waves– I worked my summers as a beach lifeguard.

I have lived close to the sea most of my life. Now we live only a few hundred metres from the beach.

Swimming on a very calm day along our local beach.

Swimming on a very calm day along our local beach.

I love to swim in the sea and do so several times a week from April to about December. When I was younger I swam right through the year but I don’t really like cold water and the challenge outweighs the fun.

Lots of gear on for early season swims – Water temperature 9 degrees!

Lots of gear on for early season swims – Water temperature 9 degrees!

Warming up after a cold water swim

Warming up after a cold water swim

An Ironman triathlon swim distance is 3.8km. So a sea swim of about 1 hour 20 minutes is what I have been training for these last few years. The Ironman event will go ahead unless the conditions are very rough and dangerous so it is necessary to get out there and train in the waves and get used to swimming in difficult conditions.

Emerging from the sea after a 3.8km swim. Only 180 km on the bike and 42.2km run to go.

Emerging from the sea after a 3.8km swim. Only 180 km on the bike and 42.2km run to go.

The sea is a dynamic environment. It is affected by the tides and weather.

The sea, depending on where you are in relation to the earth’s axis, is affected by the gravitational pull of the moon and sun relative to earth. It is important to understand the tide does not just go in and out, up and down the shore but the water flows around the coasts in tidal streams.

Areas affected by big tides are also subject to currents that vary in strength and direction. In some areas, the tidal stream can travel at speeds far faster than a swimmer can travel.

The size of waves is controlled by wind speed, how long the wind blows for, and the area over which the wind acts. Local wind will affect waves and make them more unpredictable. Messy surf tends to be blown out by an offshore wind (one blowing out to sea). It can also lead to wind chop or a roughing up of the surface, and often combines with swell and waves to cause difficult conditions for swimmers.

Waves make swimming more difficult.

Waves make swimming more difficult.

So – what does this mean?

There are risks associated with everything we do. The more adventurous your life is the more fun you have – but the more risks you take.

Sea swimming is potentially a risky activity so it makes sense to control as many factors as possible.

Not a swimming day

Not a swimming day

When starting out, it’s always safer to swim on lifeguarded beaches, or at least go with people who are knowledgeable and experienced in the local conditions. Find out all you can, and gain experience in relative safety so that you understand your own capabilities. Swimming in the sea is not like swimming in a pool – you have beaches, waves, tides, currents and cold water to deal with – not to mention jelly fish and other creatures who are all out to get you – or at least that’s how it seems when you see a large dark shape below you.

I am a strong, experienced swimmer but I am extremely cautious about when and where I swim. I always wear a wetsuit which keeps me warm and is also quite buoyant. It keeps me afloat with minimum effort. I wear a very bright swim cap so other people can see me. The coast where I live has a small tidal range so tidal streams are weak. The beach conditions are such that rip currents are unlikely.

Perfect swimming conditions (you can’t see the huge barrel jelly fish that were lurking in the depths)

Perfect swimming conditions (you can’t see the huge barrel jelly fish that were lurking in the depths)

I usually swim with other people who I know and trust. I know their swimming capabilities and I know they will be keeping a look out to check I am OK.

Swimming with a group I know and trust linear to the beach with kayak support

Swimming with a group I know and trust linear to the beach with kayak support

We usually swim linear to the beach rather than out to sea. If I do swim alone I have someone on the beach keeping an eye on me – if it’s Ian he will be carrying a throw line. On long swims – say over 4km or 2 hours we have kayak support. The kayak will transport nutrition. It offers something to hold onto if we need a rest. It can transport a swimmer to shore if necessary. The kayak is also very visible to other water users and draws attention to the swimmers in the water thus reducing risk of injury from other craft.

If I think the sea looks too rough for swimming I do not swim. As I get older I can choose what I want to do. It has to be fun. I swim with a group of friends and our swims are very sociable on and off the water.

Sociable swims – fun on and off the water

Sociable swims – fun on and off the water

We have away days and swim in different places.

Swimming in the River Avon towards Bantham for the SWOOSH effect of the tide

Swimming in the River Avon towards Bantham for the SWOOSH effect of the tide

Swimming around Brownsea Island in Poole harbour

Swimming around Brownsea Island in Poole harbour

This is the way forward. Less arduousness – more fun.

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About Barbara

I am a lifetime endurance athlete and seem to still have the motivation now that I am 61 years of age to get out there and be active and adventurous. I completed a full ironman distance triathlon in 14 hours a couple of months before my 60th birthday and the London Marathon 12 minutes inside the Good For Age time in April 2016. In June 2016 I won my age group at the Exmoor 70.3 Ironman event. Since then I have become less interested in competing and more interested in having fun. Running has become increasingly difficult and not so much fun so I am doing less of that. However, I still ride my bike at least 300 kilometres in a 'normal' week and swim, gym , yoga etc to keep up my fitness and health . Mountain biking became a new feature of my life in 2016 and with that came a new cycling buddy. A wonderful suprise - my husband! This has changed what we do with our time together and in June 2017 we enjoyed a tour of the west coast of Scotland and the Outer Hebrides together. Audax riding is still a regular feature and in June 2017 I completed 4 years of AAARTY.

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