Sea Swimming Safely

Remember – you need to treat the sea like a dangerous breed of dog, mostly fine but every now and again it can bite you, maul you and certainly has the capacity to inflict significant damage. On a more cheerful note, if you happen to find yourself visiting our lovely island then do look us up on Facebook under Outdoor Swimming Isle of Wight, you will be most welcome to join us. 

There are some disturbing videos on social media of people who don’t fully appreciate the power of the sea. Yet water seems so soft, we drink it, shower under it, pop it in reusable bottles, even use whisky to dilute it. But, size, or at least volume, does matter. Just a few inches of water, flowing at a few mph can easily knock an adult over. One cubic meter of water weighs about a tonne, 1000kg, (about 3300 cups of tea) or, frighteningly, the same as a small car. A wave is like dozens of small cars, constantly forming and slamming against the beach, rocks, slippery algae-covered concrete foreshores, and, most importantly, you. Sea waves of just 50cm can produce a powerful, constantly changing flow with a deceptive power waiting to catch you out. 

Although it may not seem like it, we all do risk assessments on a daily basis such as when crossing the road, taking something from the oven, or, at the moment, how close we are to someone. As a sea swimmer this should become second nature and along with a few tips as follows: (NB this is for the Isle of Wight beaches)

It is nearly always safer, baring underwater obstacles, to swim on a low, incoming tide, particularly if you are unfamiliar with the beach. Talk to the locals, fishermen can be a useful source of info as they know where they snag their lines, as can other more experienced swimmers.

To see how high the waves are in Sandown Bay you can take a look at data from the Channel Coastal observatory from one of their data buoys, more or less opposite the zoo.

There are two, one at the end of the pier which has limited data. The one in the bay shows the swell and water temperature so you can see roughly what the waves are doing. Also, be aware that the strength and size of the waves can depend on the wind direction and the ‘fetch’ which is how long the wind has been blowing over how much sea, obviously the longer and stronger the wind, the bigger the waves.

If the water is very flat then it is generally far safer to sea swim. If the sea is rough, it can be disorientating and hard to swim against the waves. Remember, one cubic metre of water weights about one tonne, and it is moving. Water might look nice and fluffy but it really carries some weight.

Waves break because the bottom of the wave is slowed down by friction with the seabed whilst the top of the wave carries on regardless until it topples over under gravity. This is where the steepness of the beach comes into play. Often, there is an area on the seabed closer to the shore which is steeper than further out and instead of the wave breaking nicely and moving further inwards, it curls back on itself and can pull your feet from underneath you so take a look and see where and how the waves break.

It may be a comfort to know that most people who drown in the sea (55% according to the RNLI) enter the water accidentally by falling whilst out running or walking, not sea swimmers. The advice, whether you fall into the water or are swimming and become fatigued, is the same. Float on your back until you can control your breathing and relax.

Rip tides are another common fear. The advice is similar, if you find yourself being taken out to sea, don’t fight against it, lie on your back, relax and then swim sideways when you can, parallel to the shore and head for the beach where there are breaking waves (calm areas of water among waves can indicate a rip current.)

Do NOT go into the sea on an inflatable blow up ‘anything’ as these can easily be blown off-shore or drift away. Wind can have a stronger effect on surface items under the right conditions.

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