Is Open Water Swimming Dangerous?

Is Open Water Swimming Dangerous?

Is open water swimming dangerous?  If you can swim and are water safe, the answer is no.

But are there inherent risks when venturing past the shoreline?  Most certainly, there are.  But there are risk mitigation steps that you can take in every situation.

Top 10 Risks

In order of probability that you may encounter – include:

1. Urban runoff 

2. Pollution 

3. Lacerations 

4. Panic 

5. Muscle Cramps or Pulls

6. Jellyfish stings

7. Marine Vessel Mishaps

8. Hypothermia

9. Hyperthermia

10. Shark Encounters

1. Urban runoff

Urban runoff can lead to minor or major skin, eye and ear problems.

Urban runoff is surface runoff of rainwater in metropolitan areas, but it can also occur in open bodies of water near agricultural or manufacturing areas.  Urban runoff is a major source of water pollution in local communities worldwide, and is a major reason many open water swimmers do not enter the water a few days after a heavy rainfall.

During rain storms, roads, parking lots and sidewalks that are built from materials such as asphalt and concrete are efficient and carry polluted stormwater to storm drains, instead of allowing the water to percolate through soil.  Most municipal storm sewer systems discharge stormwater, untreated, to streams, rivers and bays.

Because this untreated water can cause minor or major skin, eye and ear irritations, it is best to avoid swimming in obvious (or non-obvious) polluted marine environments up to 3 days after a rainfall.

If you must swim, wear ear plugs to avoid water getting in your ears.  Also, try not to swallow water when breathing. 

2. Pollution 

Pollution can include everything from bacteria like E. coli to oil slicks.  Swallowing even very small amount of pollution can lead to stomach or skin problems.  

If the water quality in your local area can be researched online, it is best to do so.  But if the water quality is not available in the public domain, then use your best judgment.  If the water tastes funny or smells wrong, it is best to avoid swimming if possible.

3. Lacerations 

Lacerations (cuts or scrapes) can be caused on your hands, arms, face and shoulders if you swim directly into flotsam, jetsam, or other kinds of debris or pieces of wood in the water.  

These floating bits of garbage almost always come out of nowhere – and you cannot help running into an unexpected bit of trash.  If there is trash lined up on the shoreline, then understand there is most probably additional trash out in the open water where you will swim.

4. Panic

Once you venture past the shoreline and are far away from land, you can panic due to the unexpected dynamic conditions of Mother Nature.  Large ocean swells, large shoreline waves, strong winds that cause whitecaps, or a rapidly moving fog bank can lead to misdirection in the open body of water.

It is easy to say, but hard to do in the open water – especially if you swim alone – but try not to panic while you are in the open water if something unexpected happens.  If you start to feel a sense of panic, immediately stop swimming and tread water. 

Open water swimmers can and should always Expect The Unexpected.  Oceans, seas, lakes, rivers can be unpredictable and different conditions can occur on a moment’s notice.  If something terrible or unnerving happens out in the open water, try to breathe deeply, focus on staying calm, and put your goggles on your forehead if necessary to see better.  Get your wits about you and head to shore as soon and as best you can.

If panic is simply too much, stop wave your hands above your head and yell in the direction of someone who can come to your aid.

5. Muscle Cramps or Pulls

If you swim too far or too fast or get dehydrated, you can experience sudden muscle cramps or, more unlikely, a muscle pull.  This may disable you for a period of time or cause you to only be able to use one leg or one arm.  Perhaps you may only be able to breathe to one side or your hips may drop.  In all of these cases, slow down and swim a different swimming stroke if possible (i.e., backstroke or breastroke).

Similar to the panic situation above, try to get your wits about you and head to shore as soon and as best you can.  Try self massage for a while if that helps.  Try swimming with one arm or stop kicking, if that helps.  

Similar to the panic situation above, if you feel that you are in real trouble, stop swimming, look up, wave your hands above your head, and yell in the direction of someone who can immediately come to your aid.

For all these reasons, it is important to learn how to efficiently tread water like a water polo player or artistic swimmer.  

6. Jellyfish stings

Jellyfish stings undoubtedly hurt.  The stings can come out of nowhere and are always a surprise.  The stings can be shocking –  even for those who have never stung before.

If you are allergic to bee stings or other kinds of venom, this can become a dangerous situation.  Similar to the situations above, if you feel that you can get in real trouble real fast, stop swimming, look up, wave your hands above your head, and yell in the direction of someone who can immediately come to your aid.

7. Marine vessel mishaps

In some very unfortunate situations, boaters, windsurfers, Jet Skiers, kite surfers, and surfers run into swimmers and can cause serious injuries.  These mishaps can and should be avoided, but accidents happen.  Murphy’s Law is the rule of the sea in these cases.  That is, anything can can go wrong will go wrong.

In order to avoid these situations, open water swimmers should avoid areas where boaters, windsurfers, Jet Skiers, kite surfers, and surfers dominate the open body of water.  Speeding boaters are usually not looking out for open water swimmers, especially those far from shore or without a bright swim cap or something like a brightly colored tow float.

But if you find yourself in an area where there are boaters, make sure to always listen to the propeller of a boat.  In a vast number of cases, you should be able to hear the boat’s motor.  In these cases, stop and keep an eye out for the boat.  Let it pass you and then continue on swimming.  Do NOT assume the boat will see you and avoid you.  This is the biggest mistake that an open water swimmer can make.  It is YOUR personal responsibility to avoid the boat.  

8. Hypothermia

Hypothermia is an abnormally low body temperature caused by prolonged exposure to cold water, especially when combined with chilly winds or pronounced fatigue.  

Know your limits.  Do not be influenced by others or forced to swim in bodies of water that are too cold for your current abilities or level of acclimatization.  

If you are worried about the water temperature, make sure to swim with a Swim Buddy, swim close to shore or with an escort boat, kayaker or paddler, wear ear plugs or two swim caps (that can be a neoprene cap), or a wetsuit.  

Some experienced marathon swimmers may have personal issues with people who wear wetsuits or two swim caps, but it is best to be safe rather than sorry.

Acclimatization to colder water temperatures is a slow process and can take months or even years in the case of extreme water temperatures.  Be patient and your dedication will result in vastly improved acclimatization to colder water temperatures.

9. Hyperthermia

Hypothermia is dangerous – and so can hyperthermia be.

Hypothermia is when you get too cold; hyperthermia is when you get too warm.  Both can be equally dangerous – and both can sneak up on you if you ignore the obvious warning signs.

Hyperthermia is an abnormally high body temperature resulting from very warm water and weather temperatures, especially under bright skies and occasionally complicated by dehydration.    

Several degrees of severity exist, starting with Heat Edema with the swelling of hands and feet. Heat Stroke is a medical emergency with potential for profound confusion, loss of coordination, hallucinations and coma, typically with a core body temperature of greater than 104°F. Between these two extremes there are intermediate degrees of severity, including (in order) Heat Syncope, Heat Cramps and Heat Exhaustion.

10. Shark Encounters

The most feared risk in the ocean are encountering sharks.  

If you suddenly see a shark in the open water, try to breathe deeply and slowly (always easier said than done).  Focus on staying calm, if possible, and try to keep an eye out on the shark’s movements. 

Quickly get your wits about you and head to shore as soon and as best you can.  If your sense of panic is too great, stop wave your hands above your head and yell in the direction of someone who can come to your aid.  Your anxiety will be picked up by the shark – that may simply swim away and not care.

Try to stay horizontal as you watch the shark circle, but then go to the vertical position and extend your arms and legs are far as you can.  According to experienced shark divers, you want to appear to be as big as possible in the water when a shark is swimming nearby.

But rest assure that this risk is extremely low and is the best reason to always swim with a Swim Buddy.