The Incident Pit

How one thing can lead to another on a swim - until a series of minor incidents can become a major tragedy

Kate Rew in "Death Valley" on a calm day. Dominick Tyler

An Incident Pit is a term used by divers (as well as engineers and medics) to describe how things can go from bad to a lot worse, with sometimes fatal consequences, without any of the incidents in themselves behind high risk.

Wikipedia defines it as “a conceptual pit with sides that become steeper over time and with each new incident until a point of no return is reached. As time moves forward, seemingly innocuous incidents push a situation further toward a bad situation and escape from the incident pit becomes more difficult. An incident pit may or may not have a point of no return”.

I have fallen into the Incident Pit more than once on a swim – and discovered how easily an early mistake (not double checking the tide time), can become coupled with an oversight (not assessing the standard of the swimmers I’m with), and amplified by conditions, until a routine swim has become a potentially life-threatening situation.

William Thomson, author of ‘The Book of Tides’ interviewed me about the worst of these swims for his site Tidal Compass – a time, in the early days of the OSS, when I took my sister around Burgh Island at Christmas, and got too close to not bringing her back. The full story of my Burgh Island misadventure, is on Tidal Compass.

The way things accelerated that day is likely to be familiar to many swimmers. The reasons why things go wrong will be different every time. In our case, that time, it was a plan we’d made far out (she lives in the US) and then went ahead with without moderating it for the weather conditions that day. We were cavalier (it was a really familiar swim to three of us). We got caught up in the social excitement of getting together with each other… there was layer of layer of overlooking the cold, precise details of planning and preparing for the mini-adventure. If you’re feeling fit and strong, and you know your friends are too, it’s easy to forget how powerless you are against the sea.

The skill is to spot the signs of an incident pit before you’re around the back of an island battling the tide with a weak swimmer who is borderline hypothermic

William Thomson drew out more lessons from the story. ‘I learnt a huge amount from my conversation with Kate; the importance of clear communication, of taking time to analyse the conditions and to assess the challenges in relation to the weakest person in the group. If it had been just Kate, Michael and Kari on that swim, there wouldn’t have been any drama – it would have been a fun, energising, and bouncy adventure. What made it a mis-adventure was the fact that Lisa wasn’t a strong swimmer, despite being a fantastic athlete, and the seas overpowered her.

‘Perhaps the most important lesson is that just because you’ve made the effort to get to a certain point, you’re not tied to carrying on. Disasters are rarely a single event, but often progression of minor mistakes – and as Kate said ‘things just got more and more chaotic’. The skill is to spot the early signs of an incident pit and take evasive action before things get out of hand and you’re around the back of Burgh Island in rough seas, battling the tide with a companion who’s not a strong swimmer and is borderline hypothermic.’

  • William will be adding more stories on how to #seasthepower to Tidal Compass over summer 19, on new moons and full moons.


Irish Underwater Council: Incident Pit

Some lessons learned:

  • Check and double check – weather, tides, swimmer ability
  • No matter how familiar a swim is to you, it’s fresh every time depending upon water conditions
  • Do your planning on land – it is surprisingly hard to reach group decisions in the water
  • On social swims – take 5 minutes out of the excitement to be that safety cautious swim nerd! Remember that you are literally going to be out of your depth soon in a body of water that is far stronger than you are.
  • No matters how familiar a swim is to you, remember it’s fresh every time depending upon water conditions
  • Be extra vigilant in groups, where things can go wrong quickly. It’s very difficult to make sensible decisions when there are lots of people in the water and things are going wrong, so it’s important to communicate properly
  • Always consider going back, or stopping, as an option

For more information on assessing and moderating risks, and understanding the water you’re in – please browse the whole of this Survive section. Starting, perhaps, with Top 10 Tips For Summer Swim Safety, and OSS Intermediate Tips for Swim Safety.

Kate Rew
Dominick Tyler