Do we need regulation in open water swimming?

26th April, 2019

Quick answer: no? Longer answer: grab yourself a coffee, and take 30 minutes to listen to OSS Founder Kate Rew and Colin Hill (open water advocate and events expert) think through the issues

Isn’t 2019 a strange year for open water (or outdoor) swimming? On the one hand, the popularity of it is going through the roof (woo hoo!). On the other, charities, governing bodies and non-governing bodies that have not played a big part in the last 13 years of the open water story are currently looking long and hard at open water and thinking ‘Shouldn’t we do something?’ ‘Where do we fit in here?’ and more specifically, ‘Shouldn’t we do something to make outdoor swimming safer?’.

There isn’t a person who could decry the desire for people not to hurt themselves, but at OSS HQ there is an awareness that as a community we need to take our eyes off our next swim for a beat or two in order to concentrate on what other bodies are saying and doing. Otherwise before we know it we might find the freedoms we’ve enjoyed over the last decade have been curtailed.

If we spend all our time at the riverbank (rather than meetings) we might wake up in a world where our favourite open water venue is no longer open for winter swimming (because temperatures below 10 degrees are ‘outside regulations’).

Or where our favourite swimming events are not insurable as event manager are no longer free to make their own decisions – because there are ‘guidelines’ about things like skin swimming at low temperatures; or swimming in conditions that are non-standard (isn’t the cold and the storminess where some of the fun is?).

Or even – huge fear! – where our free social swimming is curtailed, because it becomes swept up by guidelines initially aimed at ‘accredited’ venues. (Which would be a huge shame – because it feels like the Inland Bathing Area model is being brilliantly embraced by more councils and areas such as the Lake District National Park,which now actively encourage free swimming.

These questions were raised this month around a Sh2OUT conference, an initiative set up by the Royal Life Saving Society and British Triathlon, and furthered when a Pool To Pond teaching qualification was introduced by RLSS. Sh2OUT’s stated aim is to support the development of safe commercial swimming venues, develop standards for open water swimming events, help build swimming communities, inspire participation and provide industry guidance. This all sounds positive – but when you really about it, each one of these areas provokes concern:

VENUES: If the SH2OUT technical working group were simply creating guidance, then this would answer the stated aim of supporting venues and keeping swimmers safe, and be hard to argue with as a positive move. It’s the accreditation that provokes worry – this could lead to expense, restriction and abdicated responsibilities (instead of becoming highly safety aware themselves, operators ‘follow guidelines’). It is also coming from a group that knows triathlon, but not the whole of open water. Where guidance is just guidance venue operators remain free to make their own arrangements (according, perhaps, to their own expertise, budgets and 200-year-old traditions of winter swimming). But once it becomes shorthand for “safe”, insurance companies may start to look and then insist upon it.

EVENTS: A similar set of concerns surrounds the stated aim to “develop standards for open water swimming events”. It might seem intuitively obvious that someone could write safety guidelines for an industry – until you actually address the detail of how that would be done. I have spent 13 years with responsibility for water safety at Outdoor Swimming Society events such as the Swoosh, Hurly Burly and Dart10k, working with a specialist water safety company to deliver exciting, safe, open water events. In the OSS we cover both extremes – either you swim by yourself, for free, and take care of yourself, or, you pay to be looked after and this is the full bells and whistles – the best safety cover around. To me, the entire idea that you could create safety guidelines is predicated on a misunderstanding of the nature of the world’s most exciting open water events. Maybe someone could make up a set of guidelines for a swimming event for doing circles in a lake on a clear day in summer, but as soon as you introduce tides, bends, currents, cold, i.e. nature and weather – and endurance – then safety is a complete interplay between the swimmers, landscape, conditions, weather and the event manager.

The idea that an outside consultant could possibly know whether my event water safety plans are safe is just crazy. The only people who are going to know they are robust are me (the event director) and my water safety experts; the ones who have spent weeks and weeks swimming and recceing them. And this is what our courts of law require of us – all good event directors already work to a standard, and that standard is to know that if anything happened we can go up on the stand and say, hand on heart, we wrote this risk assessment (or approved this risk assessment) and this is why we were qualified to do so. This is how we addressed every single risk our swim posed to participants, uniquely and specifically. These are the measures we took and this is why they were thought to be reasonable. The system for making events safe already exists. You can no more legislate to stop unsafe events than you can legislate to stop crap parties – some event managers are just better than others.

This debate is all very similar to the one the community had around SOWSA last year (Scottish Open Water Swimming Association)  – if you weren’t there for that, it’s well worth catching up to see why some of us are worried about what’s happening in England now. (The SOWSA proposal, OSS response and community response can all be reviewed on the OSS website. Faced with HUGE resistance from the community the SOWSA operators stood down).

WILD SWIM GROUPS: Individuals running wild swim groups have already been approached through the OSS Facebook group by ‘safety consultants’ selling their services, telling them that they are legally liable on social swims and need to hire the consultants to do risk assessments and take out insurance. This is not only legally inaccurate – the entire OSS online presence is based on the Swim Responsibility Statement, which broadly states we can (and should) take responsibility for ourselves, it is also a nonsense – a consultant couldn’t give you a risk assessment for your wild swimming group as rivers rise, rocks move, expertise varies, weather/temperature all interplay to create ‘safety conditions’ etc. So just by suggesting that they could be hired to do a useful risk analysis on a wild swimming spot, a one-time view that’d be useful to a regular group, that consultant has already shown they fundamentally misunderstand the nature of the water they want to advise on – and underestimated the extent of open water knowledge in the community.

Following an email chain between Simon Griffiths at Outdoor Swimmer magazine (people can read his editorial on this subject in next issue of the magazine), Colin Hill and myself, Colin recorded this brilliant exposition of the picture in open water as he sees it in this 15 minute vlog, prompted by discussions we had around SH2OUT, which had a conference at the end of March 2019. Colin’s question is: should a sport be looking at increasing it’s influence over another sport that already has communities, events and governing bodies in place?

The Outdoor Swimming Society approach to safety has always been – and will continue to be – that with the freedom to swim comes the responsibility to do it safely – by understanding the water we swim in, our own abilities and our own response to cold. We believe in individual responsibility (and adventure! and joy!). What is safe for one person could be fatal for the next, and a place that is ‘safe’ one day, could be fatal the next. The emerging wisdom of the community is reflected in part by our SURVIVE section, that has sections on Understanding Sea, Understanding Rivers, Understanding Lakes & Quarries and Cold. and guidelines such as the OSS Top 10 tips for summer safety (which comes with a sister feature OSS Intermediate Tips For Safe Summer Swimming for more adventurous swimmers).

We say all this, like serious, risk-aware reluctant figures of authority – but also need to say that (thankfully) the risks posed by lakes, rivers and seas are already being met by swimmers. People setting out with a pair of goggles for a swim are not the ones most at risk from open water. It appears to be the spontaneous swimmers and the accidental swimmers getting into trouble.

The huge boom in popularity we are seeing at the moment means that the less equipped – in either swimming ability or outdoors common sense – are now joining the movement (welcome!). So we do need to start saying out loud the common sense safety precautions many of us instinctively take. But that’s about sharing the swim love around a wider community, not being the judge and jury of what is ‘safe’. What kind of joy and adventure are you going to have if you approach life like that?

#sharetheswimlove #outdoorswimmingsociety

Kate Rew, April 2019





A very quick, back of a matchbox, guide to the stakeholders in open water and how we can all fit together with our various areas of expertise and interest:

  • Triathlon & British Triathlon = triathlon and triathlon private training venues
  • BLDSA = long distance swimming
  • Channel Swimming = long distance swimming
  • International Ice Swimming & International Winter Swimming Association = winter swimming
  • British Swimming = elite swimming
  • Swim England = national governing body – club swimmers
  • The Outdoor Swimming Society = community (all: ice, marathon, adventure, social, wild)

Other notable groups with an interest in water safety:

  • RLSS – Royal Life Saving Society
  • RNLI – Royal National Lifeboat Institution
  • SLSGB – Surf Life Saving Great Britain

Keep your eyes open, your radar on: it’s highly possible that at this point in history many outdoor swimmers know more about open water (and all its subdivisions) than some of those who want to ‘help’ make it safer for us. If we want our future freedoms, we need to get to know our acronyms!