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Safety during an open water swim

Doing a solo openwater swim is risky, doing it in a group is safer, but even then the risks are still there.

If you are planning to do an open water swim, make sure you inform someone where you are going to do your swim, if possible have someone look over you during your swim, either from the shore, or from a water craft like a boat or kayak or a standup paddleboard. But for most of us that would be a luxury. In any case, this post will cover some of the aspects of safety based on my experience.

WATER TRAFFIC

If you are to swim in area where motorboats past by, I highly recommend with a swimming buoy, this is so that they can easily spot you from afar and then avoid you.

SEA CREATURES

SHARKS (or lack there of)

Most people have a fear of openwater swimming because of jaws or sharks, just keep in mind that sharks attacks are actually quite rare. A friend who SCUBA dives shares that she has done more than 80 dives in Brunei and has never seen a shark.

SMALL FISHES

I have snorkeled in sabah once and there was a certain small fish that kept on pecking on me, but i guess I was invading its territory and it was being protective. Otherwise most fishes just pass by or swim away. One occassion I puked in the water, there were small fishes swimming along side me for a while.

JELLYFISH

The hazard that I keep on facing during an openwater swimming is jellyfish, and not just the big ones (like the one that stung my wife), the small ones can pack quite a sting. The pain is not much different to an ant bite or a bee sting (which i have also experienced). During a swim we may swim through them, and they are just reacting to us bumping into them, in my case its usually around the neck and chest area, a few times the armpit (so it was painful when I pulled and recover during a swim stroke).

PROTECTION AND TREATMENT FOR STINGS

Jelly fish protection is either wear a rash guard, or I have seen people use an anti jellyfish gel in Labuan, I haven’t seen it sold in Brunei though. Now treatment for stings is quite confusing if you google around.

Generally do not touch the tentacles if they are still attached, use an object to help pull it off. I have seen people use a credit card to scrap of any stingers that might be still attached, but others share that the pressure from the cards might inject more venom from the stingers.

A common suggestion is to urinate or pee on the affected area. I haven’t personally try this, but what I have tried is vinegar spray and warm water. The idea is the acid may deactivate the stingers or neutralize the venom, others suggest that the warm water may do the same thing. The general idea is if the temperature or pH of the solution matches the venom it will be neutralized, but if it doesn’t it will be activated, on that note there are those that suggest rinsing in the salty ocean water would suffice. I admit a warm shower does sting a bit initially, but it does feel soothed afterwards.

GROUP SWIMMING 🏊 🏊

Group swimming is not much different from a group hike. It is best to swim in a group. After all in the case of a predator, what matters is not that you can swim faster than the predator, but that you can swim faster than the other swimmers. 😜

Jokes aside, group swimming is the best way for a beginner to try an open water swim. The number of people may give comfort, confidence and moral support to the person, especially in knowing that someone may accompany them or may even help them during times of need. So the first important part if a group swim is…

HAVE A SWIM BUDDY

Ideally partner up with someone your speed, or at least doesn’t mind slowing down to keep you company. If there is an odd one out, then there can be a swim buddy of threes. But keep in mind despite being with company, even those who can swim, there are no guarantees that they can help you in an emergency situation. Which is why I recommend the swimmer to have at least a few basics before they begin to swim open water.

SWIMMING BUOYS

If you are a beginner, it is recommended that you have a swimming buoy, Note that even though it is not meant to be a flotation device or a lifesaving device (it says so on the package or the buoy) it can give the beginner a bit of confidence boost knowing that they might be assisted by a floating device if they get tired. Note that most people won’t need a floating device if they know how to relax in the water, especially since most people will float easily in sea water.

Another important use of a swimming buoy is as a dry bag. To place your belongings like your key or your wallet in it while you swim. You may be able to safely keep your mobile phone dry in it, but there is no guarantee. I would suggest an extra protection by putting it in its own protection bag.

An important note if swimmimg against the waves, if the waves are crushing, it is recommended that you hold the buoy in your arms instead of leaving it dragging behind. As the forces in a wave may break the tether to the buoy. (Which has happened before)

SWIM IN A PACK

This is the part that is often difficult to maintain, especially if there are people different swimming abilities. Keep swimming in a pack, you don’t want to leave anyone behind. A slow beginner swimmer in the back may feel pressured to keep up and they may tire and quit sooner. In a bigger group, people with different abilities might split into 2 or 3 groups. But as long as you stay with your swimming buddy you shud be fine, and the groups should stay together. In the case of splits the choices are to maintain the group by stopping frequently at 50 or a 100 metres and wait for the rest, or to split the group between fast and slow, so the fast groups don’t need to stop so frequently and maintain their pace.

SWIM SKILLS

Before we begin it is best to identify the prequisites for you to be able to swim openwater.

  1. You know how to swim, at least 50 metres
  2. You know how to swim relaxed. You can swim 500 metres without feeling tired. This usually requires to be comfortable with your breathing rythm. Being able to breathe every 3 or 4 strokes would be an advantage. The longer you can hold your breath the more comfortable you can become, especially in hard waves.
  3. You can float, tread easily and comfortably. The sea water does make this a lot more easier than in the swimming pool.
  4. Sighting. In the swimming pool you have the lines and tiles to guide you, in the open water there is no such thing. Swimming breast stroke is easy to sight. Freestyle or front crawl is more tricky. What I would recommend is to lift head up to sight, right before turning the head to the side to breathe in.
  5. Swimming straight. A tricky thing to do. One way of checking in the pool is to close your eyes in the water
  6. Swim the distance, it is recommended to do what’s called over distance training where you swim 130% of the distance. This is to compensate for tge currents doing an openwater swim.

SWIM ROUTE

Before the swim, communicate to the group of the route.

  • The simplest route is straight out and back, its easier if there is a target to aim for. Most people wont be able to swim straight even with a swim marker.
  • Another route is one that triathlons usually do, which is a triangle loop, a few hundred metres outwards to the left, swim to the right parallel to the shore, and then back to starting point. its easier if you have a swim marker buoy. But its doable even if without.
  • Probably the safest and easiest route to swim far is to swim outwards for a few hundred metres, at least past the wave breakers, and then swim parallel to the shore, and then back. At least if anything happens or you get tired, you can always swim back to shore and walk back.
  • GPS. It is helpful if you have a GPS swim watch to keep track of the distance during a swim, it may also be use as a guide during the swim. At the least the distance and time you have covered. If you dont have a GPS watch, a simple trick is to count your strokes in the pool, e.g. If I swim with 50 strokes per 50 metres, then I have a rough idea on how long I have swam.

Weather, tides and currents

Be aware of the weather, currents and tides. Obviously do not swim in harsh weather where the winds are strongly blowing and causing huge waves.

The tides and currents are a bit challenging in the sense you might not notice it until you are in the water. This can cause you to swim further and faster than you expected.

If the tides are coming in i.e. getting high tide, the water will push you to the shore, if it is coming out i.e. getting low tide, then the water is pushing you out to see.

I haven’t notice the currents being that bad. If you are a strong swimmer, you should be fine. A weak swimmer should learn to relax if they are caught in a rip current, and swim to the side until they find the current pushing o shore.

Summary

Summarizing this post:

Do’s

  • Be able to swim long distance. 50m-500m
  • Swim in a group
  • Use a swim buoy
  • Wear a rash guard or a long sleeve swim suit
  • Relax

Don’ts

  • Don’t Split up. Stay in packs.
  • Don’t Panic.
  • Don’t swim the distance in open water if you haven’t done so in a pool. At least do 130% in the pool.
  • Don’t swim in bad weather.

There is probably a few more things that I could cover, but these are the important things I can remember right now. Please feel free to comment or ask any questions to ask any other issues or to clarify certain aspects.

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Watch “How To Ride Your Bike At Night – Guide To Lighting + Reflective Clothing” on YouTube

Safety bicycle riding at night.
Be able to see,
And be seen.