Safety Advice for New Ocean Swimmers
We at VOWSA have put together some safety advice, should you want to swim in the open water.
While we offer the advice below, we want to emphasize: Never swim alone!
If there is no other option than to swim alone, please:
- Let someone know where you are going and when you expect to be back.
- Use a high-visibility personal swim buoy (such as a Swim Buddy).
- Swim in water that is already familiar to you.
Why Swim In Open Water?
Swimmers who make the leap into open water tend to love it. Never having to turn at the wall, swimming while looking at this gorgeous city, not having a chlorine reaction: it is well worth trying. It takes a bit of courage at the start.
Ocean swimming is not pool swimming for a number of reasons. Temperatures, tides, currents, and unseen objects in the water are all hazards of open water swimming.
Some swimmers have a partner or family member in a kayak paddling alongside them for safety. At the very least it would be good for the swimmer to have someone keeping an eye on them from the beach. Would you hike in the mountains alone?
The temperature of the ocean at places like Kits Beach or Jericho Beach ranges from 13 to 14 degrees Celsius in early May up to 19 degrees in high summer. For comparison, the Kits Pool and pools like Hillcrest are typically above 22 degrees Celsius. A general rule of thumb at events says that water temperatures below 15 degrees means wetsuit-mandatory, anything between 15 and 20 is wetsuit-optional, and above 20 degrees requires people to not wear a wetsuit.
Where to Get a Wetsuit
There are a couple places to get a wetsuit. One of our sponsors is Jean Michel Auzoux of Rowand’s Reef at 1731 West 4th in Vancouver
A normal summer swimming wetsuit is usually and mostly 3mm in thickness. Winter wetsuits are 5mm. There are also neoprene caps and booties you can buy to help preserve warmth. A surfing wetsuit has less flexibility in the arms.
For safety, you should have this gear:
- Wear a brightly coloured swim cap, preferably fluorescent yellow or pink or red. Don’t wear blue, black, or white as these colours blend with the water.
- Use a personal swim buoy (for example a Swim Buddy) to enhance your visibility in the water.
- Take a whistle in case of emergency.
Getting into the Water
Assuming you have a wetsuit and the water is not unbearably cold, and you have someone keeping an eye on you, you will get into the water and at some point the water will get into your wetsuit (this does not happen with a drysuit). The water is warmed up by your body and adds a layer of warmth.
Good advice at this point is: sit there for a few minutes. Dunk your head a few times. Get used to it before you start swimming. If you rush out, you will have too much adrenaline and you will not be breathing properly, and you are more likely to panic if this is unfamiliar. This is especially a concern in a swim race. Be sure to have a calm start, especially if it’s your first time. Once you feel ready, start.
You will be able to see almost nothing underwater unless the water is exceptionally clear. You have to rely on “sighting” from things on land. Two-point sighting is seeing how one thing on the shore–a building or flagpole or something–lines up with something much further away. If you are looking ahead and you keep these things in alignment, you know you are keeping a straight line. This requires you to lift your head: first get your breath and then look forward. People usually need a few glances to see exactly where they’re going.
The key to this is not to stop: try to keep a steady rhythm in your breathing and your swim strokes. Stopping too frequently and interrupting your flow can freak you out. If it’s wavy, if you’re nervous, putting your head underwater and focusing on your breath and movement will calm you down.
Buoys in the Water
At the various swimming beaches in town, the white buoys are there to mark the zone in which motorized boat traffic cannot enter. Do not swim past them. Even then, motorized boat traffic driven by people who are presumably unaware sometimes come within that zone. Non-motorized boat traffic–anything from outrigger canoes and paddle boards–can come within that zone and they aren’t always watching out for swimmers.
Tides, Ebbs, Back Flush, Rip Currents, and Other Water Movements
Most importantly: go to a swim-friendly beach.
There’s a lot of action in the water that is hard for a new open water swimmer to see and understand. When looking at the inlet and tide tables, remember that water doesn’t just go in and out. Ebb tides, black flush, and other water effects are common, so you may be pushed in a direction other than the tide.
The mix of wind and tide creates lots of other types of currents around the Bay as well that are not always visible to the eye. Take this into consideration when sighting even near the beach.
The current can and will push even the strongest swimmer.
If something on land seems to be moving strangely, it may be you that’s being pushed off course. Keep sighting. Certain areas of our local ocean are to be very much avoided because of the water movement. Because of this, swim-friendly beaches are where you want to be going.
Other Elements of Open Water Swimming
You should be aware of these other things happening in the water:
- Seals: Harbour seals sometimes get a bit close, mostly out of curiosity. Seeing them unexpectedly, getting bumped by them, kicking them by accident, occasionally finding them swimming next to you: this all normal.
- Floating driftwood: Keep an eye out. This is one of the biggest dangers. We have lots of islands and inlets that bring lots of debris right into the bay.
- Cold patches: once in a while you swim into a patch of cold sea, which can be slightly alarming.
- Water quality: Water quality is affected by a number of things, including a heavy rain which flushes out grey water into our local waters because of our antiquated sewer system. The City does water testing in summer, and it typically gets a bit dodgy with a lot of summer heat, boat traffic around fireworks time, and goose invasion. An organization called Swim Drink Fish does independent quality testing of local waters in the summer.
- Seaweed: You will swim into surface seaweed that’s been chopped up and sometimes bands together with other mulch, pieces of tiny wood etc. It’s usually found in patches at the surface of the water.
- Jellyfish: Jellyfish are not very common in the inlets and bay. The most common species is the Moon jellyfish: clear and white with tiny light pink flower in the center. They rarely sting. There’s also the Lions Mains which is pink and red in colour. They sting! They are more common in a Indian Arm and Howe Sound.
When You’re Done Swimming
Once out of the water, it is imperative (especially in colder weather) that you change out of your wetsuit immediately and have dry, loose, comfortable clothing to immediately change into, in many layers. You’ll probably be colder than you anticipate after you get out, so come prepared. Swimmers will often bring hot water and a snack to refuel after their swim.