A good Article on Hypothermia appeared in my reading list recently. The single most important point in this article is that hypothermia takes time a message I have been pushing for years. However, time and again alarmist and misleading information is put about by reputable organizations up to and including the RNLI that suggests hypothermia can set in or kill you in just a few minutes.
As the article explains there is a gasp reflex (cold shock reflex) from sudden immersion in cold water (walk into a cold shower if you want to try this) and clearly if your face is underwater that can be almost instantly fatal.
Hypothermia takes time, though the exact time will vary with water temperature, alcohol consumption, natural body insulation, and simply how warm you are to start with. Nevertheless as the article points out, long before full hypothermia sets in ability becomes impaired so that you may well be unable to make even a short swim back to safety.
Perhaps the most relevant part for cold water swimmers concerns the description of the ‘recovery’ stage. It is all very well to say “wrap up, do not move, get warm”, but that is a luxury swimmers do not have. Arriving back on river bank or beach the imperative is to get warm as quickly as possible because the immediate problem is ‘afterdrop’.
After the exertion of swimming for a few moments all seems well, but removed from the water the response of the body is to once more circulate blood from the core back to the extremities that have been experiencing reduced blood flow in order to retain heat in the core. Now of course cold blood is circulating back into the core and the shivering and discomfort of afterdrop sets in. There is perhaps barely time from exiting the water until shivering becomes so severe that it becomes a challenge to tie shoe laces.
This is the point at which following the advice in the article one would sit still, drink warm tea and wait the shivers out. Some people do indeed go in for wrapping up in a swimming robe and/or hugging a hot water bottle or get in their car with the heater going. My problem with the latter is that all the layers just put on are as effective at keeping warmth out as warmth in. Besides recovering from the shivers can take an hour and who has that long to sit and warm up? Whilst driving with the shivers would I imagine be as dangerous as driving whilst drunk.
Therefore there is little choice left in the matter; if sitting still is not an option then getting moving is not a choice it is the only option. It is my preferred option. I am not suggesting attempting a half marathon, not wearing all those clothes anyway, but a good stomp certainly gets the warming up process started.
For local swimmers here in Devon this is a timely discussion. The temperature of the river water is down almost 5°C on just two weeks ago; 8.5°C yesterday afternoon in the sunshine but only 7.5°C this morning after the frost. The sea temperature has also started to drop, though it has stayed unseasonably ‘warm’ through October it is now sliding down past 15°C and will probably reach 5-6°C by mid-February. Meanwhile the river can get to minus figures. People will keep on swimming though so it is important to separate fact from fiction and focus on the real dangers and not hypothermia which is simply a word most people recognize but few seem to understand.
Wild Swimming has become a go to phrase in recent years It is part of the ‘wild’ revolution: wild camping, wild swimming, wild running, all of which could equally be termed ‘outdoor’ or ‘open sky’. However, whilst running, camping, and let’s add cycling for good measure; whilst all the above clearly have by their very definition an intrinsic outdoor element, swimming has become something that is synonymous with indoor pools and chlorine. In the context of swimming then a little definition of ‘wild’ is perhaps advised.
Wild Camping could be defined as ‘not at a campsite’, the open sky bit goes without saying surely. Wild Running or Cycling are equally away from city streets or roadsides but are instead on trails or green lanes, footpaths or open hills. Wild Swimming presents a dilemma. Clearly a lido is ‘open sky’ but with a lifeguard and coffee shop to hand anyone thinking of it as wild is clearly delusional. However, a natural sea pool enhanced by people is open sky but is it wild? Is a river running through a town wild? Well, we would be fooling ourselves to think any river in flood is within our control so wildness can be a condition as well as place. The town beach may be open sky and in summer with ice cream vendors to hand it does not seem wild, but out of season, with a good swell crashing up the sand, wind tangling hair, at dawn or sunset, with maybe even some rain thrown in for good measure, then it can be quite wild. Perhaps though true wild swimming is simply where other people are not and/or nor is there much evidence that anyone has been here previously. Such places in the UK though are vanishing few in number.
Let’s therefore say that this ‘wild’ or ‘outdoor’ swimmers guide is for places where, when you get out of the water, there is no-one to sell you an ice-cream or cappuccino.
What Do You Need? Some people would say water and nothing else, but for the sake of modesty and comfort let’s agree a towel and your swimwear as a bare minimum. Goggles, ear plugs and a nose clip pack down small and add an underwater dimension to your adventure. ‘Beach’ shoes or old trainers can be helpful on rocks or pebbles. A waterproof ( not water resistant but water-PROOF) camera makes sharing your adventure simple. If you plan to swim through the winter then a rash vest and/or similar top and leggings do conserve a little warmth but a silicone swimming hat conserves more warmth than expected, whilst others prefer to swim in woolly hats. A wetsuit is the end game for some swimmers, but choosing a wetsuit is a topic in its own right. There are then as many ‘optional extras’ as manufacturers can dream up and add ‘wild’ to the description in order to part you from your money as you can imagine. My line is drawn at ‘dry robes’ and ‘tow floats’ but as already said the definition of wild is a bit hazy and some stop short of wetsuits or even swimwear. After a while the items taken will begin to shape to the place visited.
So Where Do You Want To Swim Today? From where I am sat writing this it is under 20 minutes to a sandy town beach, a rocky headland or a tree shaded river bank. 40 minutes and I could be on a sweeping pebble beach or at a moorland river pool. No wonder I am semi-aquatic. To find such places you can either take out a paper map or go on-line, where satellite imagery can be wonderfully useful. There are also many on-line web sites and social media groups with maps showing swimming places, all offering friendly advice on just about anything to get you to your destination.
What Are The Dangers? On the basis that you may be on your own, miles from any help even if you are in a group, and can drown in no time at all, then there is undoubtedly a need to muster all the common sense you have before setting out. Some people say ‘never swim alone’, which I think is sad and besides swimming in a group is no guarantee of safety. Just because you are in a group it does not mean someone will recognize you are in difficulty or have the skill to save you. Furthermore swimming in a group does introduce peer pressure and you should never give in and swim further, for longer or in colder water than you want to. In short, no matter how experienced you are or how far you have just travelled, sometimes you have to be prepared to just say ‘not today’. If you are going alone then at least tell someone where and when you might be back.
To put the danger into context the number of people who drown annually in the UK whilst actively swimming is about 30. Meanwhile 3 people drown in their bath, 10 in a pool and more walkers or runners drown than swimmers, which may seem unexpected except that if you are in either category and end up in water then you are probably ill prepared, fully clothed and have maybe injured yourself in the process, none of which will enhance your chance of surviving. (In the UK these statistics are published in the WAID Report, WAter Incident Database, and can be found on-line.)
A list of things to definitely avoid begins with alcohol, it is almost certainly the case that most of the 30 swimmer drownings began with a drink.
Jumping or diving can be great fun but you must be able to see clearly that there are no obstructions or explore underwater first with goggles, but underwater depth and distance can be deceptive. It doesn’t matter that it was clear yesterday, some fool may have thrown something in since then or something may have washed down the river. Always check.
Cold shock. If you are unprepared and enter cold water (less than 10C / 50F) your body’s reflex is to take a sharp gasp which will not go well if you are underwater. That reflex gasp probably killed most of the people who jumped into the water from the sinking Titanic. With experience you can prepare for that initial contact and stifle that gasp reflex.
Hypothermia. This takes longer to develop than most people appreciate, it is however insidious in that the more hypothermic you become the less you are aware of the cold. In water at 0C if you are unacclimatised and unprepared you will be unconscious in about 15 minutes. 10C and that is closer to 30 minutes. 20C and it could take an hour.
There are 3 stages. Borderline hypothermia and you start to shiver uncontrollably. Mild hypothermia and you struggle to perform simple tasks like tying your shoelace as you’re getting dressed or talking coherently. Full hypothermia and you become completely disoriented and ironically can feel too hot which makes people take clothes off instead of putting them on. Bear in mind though that even in the early stages one of the things that is affected is coordination and muscles so that you may be incapacitated from swimming back to the beach long before the final onset of full hypothermia.
Afterdrop is an unpleasant but not life threatening effect of having been in cold water. If you are in cold water there may well come a moment when you think ‘this is not so cold afterall’ and that should be the trigger moment to get out as it is a symptom of blood flow being cut off to your skin to conserve heat in your core and your body is not getting feedback from your skin to tell you it’s still cold. Afterdrop then kicks in when you start to dry and dress and the warm core blood begins to circulates through the skin again, cools and returns to your core body. This can result in shivering, headaches, blurred vision, chattering teeth, numbness in toes and fingers and in my case the feeling that ants with hot shoes are walking up and down my spine making me feel quite nauseous. The feeling will pass but getting dressed quickly and walking briskly for 10 minutes should accelerate the recovery.
But Why? It is cold, potentially life threatening and expensive, why do it? Some people believe cold water swimming boosts their immune system and engenders a feeling of well-being. For some people it actually does, for some people because they believe it then it actually does. However, there have been many, many studies trying to establish a clear link between cold water swimming and improved health and the mere fact that every year there are more studies does suggest any link is proving hard to identify. No matter what, after a while you will find you have both physically and mentally acclimatised to cold water and simply don’t notice that you are swimming in 6C water in January in just a pair of shorts (though maybe only for a short while).
Living is life threatening, surviving and enjoying swimming it is about proper risk assessment and common sense. We all have lapses, we all make mistakes and swimming in a lake or river miles from anywhere is never going to be 100% safe.
Expensive it is not, though it can be. Who does not have an old t-shirt, pair of shorts and towel? You don’t need new ones they are going to get dropped in mud, ground into sand, soaked with salt water, forgotten wet in a bag for a week. You can go without the t-shirt, or the shorts and on a hot summer day there is no need for a towel, but let’s not. You certainly do not need to buy all the optional extras and you certainly do not need a costly bicycle or expensive walking boots so it is possibly the least costly sports activity you can do outdoors.
You may get to see stunning sunrises or sunsets, have a friendly seal turn up, get buzzed by kingfishers, see salmon streak like silver bullets across the river bed or even see a wild otter or dolphin. If I arrive at a beach that has been smoothed by the tide and I step off and make the first footprint in the sand then I am made up for the rest of the day. You will probably make new friends and eat too much cake because it is an unwritten rule of swimming, ‘when two or more swimmers are gathered together there will be cake’. You may be happy swimming with others at a few places or you may suddenly develop and urge to follow your local river back to its source and swim all of what you can and in the process you may see the world from a perspective that few or possibly none ever had before. All that and it might keep you a bit fitter too.