Stream on

Outdoor swimming is not as risky as the summer killjoys claim.

Katharine Edgar

Topics Politics

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One of the greatest pleasures of summer must be outdoor swimming: not lengths in a noisy, crowded indoor pool choked with chlorine, but a dip in a river or lake.

To float in sun-warmed water, reaching your toes down to the delicious coolness near the oozy river bed, or gazing up at the shards of sunshine that break through the green leaves, is as different from indoor swimming as a cardboard takeaway burger is from real food.

Some people love wild swimming so much they do it every day, winter and summer, claiming long lives and healthy immune systems as a result. For most of us it is a rare hot weather treat – and one that is becoming endangered. UK police forces and organisations like the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents (ROSPA) advise us not to swim in open water at all (1), and councils have barred access to some of our most loved swimming places (2).

ROSPA, of course, is committed to saving lives, and good luck to them. Open water swimming is by no means risk-free, and every year there are awful cases where inexperienced swimmers are swept away by currents, or dive headfirst into shallows with predictable results.

Yet there are two big problems with the ‘Swimming forbidden!’ approach. One is that, while interfering with the personal freedom of all of us, it is likely to be counterproductive. Traditional swimming areas are usually the safest places, where long experience has determined there is least risk from currents and underwater hazards.

Blocking them off can have unfortunate results. A group of teenagers, arriving on a hot day, towels under their arms, only to find access to their swimming place barred, are unlikely to go for a nice country walk instead. Far more likely that they will swim somewhere else, somewhere less suitable, further away from supervision – and from help.

Another problem is that it is based on misinformation, making people believe that the risks are worse than they really are. Take the July 2003 ROSPA water safety factsheet (3). ROSPA does its best to frighten us off. Quoting drowning statistics from 2000 and 2001, it tells us: ‘The biggest reduction – from 299 to 276 – was in drowning at inland open water sites, such as lakes, rivers and canals. These remain a major problem, with people still ignoring advice to only swim at properly supervised swimming pools and beaches.’

You might be forgiven for thinking that there was some connection between the words and figures, that hundreds of people drowned every year from open water swimming. In fact, as closer examination of their own statistics shows, the number whose death had anything to do with swimming was less than an eighth of that; not 276, but 33 people drowned while swimming in 2001. You were most likely to drown as a consequence of alcohol (94 deaths). Perhaps ROSPA should be campaigning for compulsory anti-drowning labels on alcopops bottles?

Of course, drowning is not the only danger. Our waters may be cleaner than they have been for hundreds of years, free from both human effluent and the worst of chemical pollution – but, we are told, these have been replaced with a far deadlier disease. We all ‘know’ about the risks of Weil’s Disease, the acute form of leptospirosis. Carried by the urine of rats (could it be any more disgusting?) this is a bacterial infection that can cause death. Surely swimming in open waters is dicing with death?

In fact, it seems to be very difficult for swimmers to contract the disease. It is not as widespread as we might think. The Weil’s Disease Information Centre estimates that 20 percent of inland water sites in Britain have the disease at all, with even ‘less of a risk for non-rodent-friendly sites, such as rapid flowing highland streams’ (4). Of all the people who take part in watersports each year, only eight seem to contract it – and that’s cases, not deaths.

Even more significant is the distribution of cases through the year. Weil’s Disease is a winter disease (5). It is killed, it seems, by the very sunlight that draws people into the water. Wise swimmers are, of course, aware of the risks, and avoid swimming with open wounds or in rat-infested areas. But the idea that the danger is so great that it should stop us swimming altogether is preposterous.

In the end, the problem lies with the approach that seeks to protect us, like children, from ourselves. As adults we have to make judgements, balancing up our gains from an activity with the risks they involve. It is those of us who are well-informed about the activity – that is, the people who practise it – who are best placed to make those judgements.

RALSA, the River and Lake Swimming Association, is a safety-conscious bunch, yet members have stories of being lectured about their own safety by well-meaning policemen, or accused of being irresponsible – they might, apparently, encourage children to swim and thereby cause ‘tragedies’ (6).

To have people who are ignorant about our activity making these decisions for us is an infringement of our liberty. To have them banning us from the activities we love, on the pretext that stopping us will somehow protect less careful people, is a misuse of power – and one that cannot possibly work.

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Topics Politics


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