Just as some of us tire of driving along the prescribed pavement and yearn for off-road adventures, dedicated swimmers often seek a course beyond the confines of their neighborhood swimming pool. Open-water swimming, the umbrella term for swimming in lakes, rivers, and even the ocean, can be an exciting and exhilarating experience. It’s also one that, without precautions and experience, can be hazardous or even fatal. Before you go for a plunge in your nearest body of water, look over a few of the dangers of open-water swimming so you can prepare accordingly.
Undertows and Rip Currents
Natural bodies of water often feature powerful currents that we don’t always recognize from shore. Even the strongest swimmers can struggle against these currents, which can carry people away from shore and make it very difficult to get back. Such currents are a risk for drowning, as swimmers who are inexperienced with rip currents and undertows tire themselves by resisting the water.
Beyond the walls, jets, and drains of the pool, it’s no longer just you, your swimming buddies, and an overwhelming amount of chlorine. You’re sharing the water with all sorts of aquatic life—all the way down to the microscopic. Microorganisms in open water can lead to gastrointestinal and respiratory infections, not to mention the possibility of entering open wounds like cuts and scrapes. Swimmer’s ear, a condition that occurs when bacteria-laden water infiltrates the ear canal, is one of the most common ear infections people experience in adulthood. Wear a cap to cover your ears and avoid ingesting water as best you can. If you pick up some scrapes as you swim, be sure to wash them thoroughly when you’re done.
In a pool, the familiar tiles along the sides tell you, in feet and meters, how deep the water is. After you’ve swum enough laps, you’ll know the depth changes like the back of your hand. Short of memorizing some topographic maps beforehand, there are no such indications for lakes, and the depth can shift more abruptly than in a pool. Be mindful of this and don’t stray too far from shore if you’re not prepared for deep water.
Cold Water Shock and Hypothermia
One of the biggest dangers of open-water swimmingis water temperature. Jumping into a swimming pool can be, to put it mildly, quite invigorating, but even a pool that feels brisk usually benefits from a heating system. Open water is considerably colder than a closed-system pool, and this jolt to the system can cause trouble before the swimming even starts. Some swimmers experience shock upon hitting the cold water, while sustained exposure can lead to hypothermia as the body temperature drops to critical lows. To protect against both, enter the water slowly and limit your exposure.