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Take me to the river!

As part of our series of blogs on open water, Total Immersion coach Penny Wilkin gives us the lowdown on how to stay safe as you embark on your next river swimming adventure

By Penny Wilkin with Sarah Hill

Since the lockdown has been lifted I’ve made it a point to check out a wider range of open water and wild swimming spots local to me.

In fact, I’m on a mission to swim in a different spot each week – which I’ve named “Wild Swim Wednesdays”

Along with some friends from local swimming group Swim and Tonic, I’ve ventured to lots of new swimming spots, most of these have been river dips and, as many more people are swimming in rivers I thought it would be useful to share some of the things we do to keep ourselves safe:

  • Get local knowledge before you swim in a new place – from local people, other swimmers, one of the wild swimming books, a Facebook group, Google and OS maps.
  • Consult water quality resources – see our last blog Water Quality101 for all you need. 
  • Never swim alone and make sure someone knows where you’re going and how long you’ll be.
  • Take warm clothes, a warm drink and some food for afterwards.
  • Always have a mobile phone – you can carry this safely in a tow float or dry bag.
  • Always wear something on your feet until you know a location better – swim socks or swim shoes. You don’t know what you’re stepping on or what’s underfoot……it’s nothing to do with the fact that we don’t like the feel of the mud on our feet!
  • Always check out entry and exit points carefully and thoroughly. It might be easy to get in at a particular spot but harder to get out; a high bank and deep water can make it impossible to get out. We have also experienced shallow water that has mud above the knees which would have been impossible to get out from.
  • Use a stick to measure the water and mud depth at your entry point. We test with one swimmer first with other people on the bank ready to help them out if necessary; we’re considering carrying a rope and a stake with us as a safety measure or assistance strategy.
  • Check the current and how fast the water is moving and don’t underestimate this. Often the current in a river is stronger than it looks; we swim near to our entrance point for several minutes checking out the flow before going any significant distance. We will also be careful about swimming after heavy rainfall as this affects the flow of the river and there’s also the potential for pollution.
  • Use a tow float especially if there’s any possibility of boat traffic and wear a colourful swim hat as it makes you visible
  • Stick together within eyesight of each other
  • Swimmers itch is a hazard of swimming outdoors in the summer. The best way to manage this is to avoid getting bitten so try and get some up to date local knowledge on the situation from another swimmer.  While not life-threatening if you react badly it’s not very pleasant and lots of bites will certainly make you feel under the weather. One of our lakes had a particularly bad outbreak last year and a few swimmers ended up with infections that required antibiotics and time off work.   For more information check out this blog from the Outdoor Swimmer magazine.
  • If you know you react badly to any insect bite, aim to get dressed as soon as possible, stay covered up as much as you can and wear socks and shoes to walk to the river. Use an insect repellent if you will be on the river bank for any length of time after a swim.
  • Upset stomachs from poor water quality are something to watch out for; carry some anti-bacterial hand wash and use this after exiting the river and before eating anything.
  • Be careful about swimming after there’s been any amount of rainfall as well as affecting water flow and volume, water pollution can be higher from sewage and agricultural run-off, again our blog will help. You can also check what your river looks like with river cameras here.
  • Be on the lookout for swans and areas where swans live or are nesting. Give them a wide birth and plenty of respect. They can be quite angry and attack people particularly when they have cygnets.
  • Be careful of a field of cows or a bull on the way to your swimming spot. On one of our recent swims, a swan aggravated a herd of cows which started a stampede towards us and our swim spot. We made a hasty exit out of the field and found another spot. I’ve since seen lots of incidents of walkers being injured by cows and looked up some advice on how to deal with them. There are some great tips here.
  • Giant Hog Weed is poisonous.  Due to floods earlier in the year, this is appearing more often in the UK particularly on river banks and it’s worth checking out the plant tracker. No one in my swimming group had ever heard of this before until it was in the media during the lockdown.  We’ve educated each other and have a picture and information about it on our phones in case we spot something and aren’t sure. We are also keeping an eye on swimming groups for information from other swimmers.
Giant hogweed

  • Weil’s disease is rare but dangerous and swimmers need to be aware of it.  You should make sure that any open cuts are covered properly with waterproof dressings. Avoid swimming in stagnant water and look out for cold and flu-like symptoms developing with 1-3 weeks. Check out this fact sheet from the outdoor swimming society.
  • Lyme disease is caught through tick bites and is most common in woodland or heathland areas but can be found all over the UK.  Although it’s not hugely common in the UK the longer you spend in the outdoor industry the more often you meet people who have had it and been horrendously ill with long term limiting health implications – look out for a tick bite and a ‘bull’s eye’ rash. More information can be found here.

There’s a lot here to think about here but it soon becomes a normal part of your swim and it is most definitely worth it; river swimming is great fun; there are some stunningly beautiful locations and we’ve never had any major incidents but have had some wonderful experiences.

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